LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and his cousin, Virginia Tech freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker, agree on this much: They used to play one-on-one games against each other a lot growing up in Toronto, Canada, and sometimes it got ugly.
One of them describes those battles as “heated,” while the other says they nearly came to blows. But who won? That’s where their stories diverge.
“I hate losing to him,” Alexander-Walker said. “He hates losing to me.”
But to hear Gilgeous-Alexander tell it, he rarely did lose. If his cousin claims otherwise, “he’s a liar.” This much is surely true: “It’s a competitive spirit,” Alexander Walker said, “that made us better.”
It made both of the cousins, who eventually became high school teammates, consensus top-40 recruits nationally. It led Gilgeous-Alexander to Lexington, Ky., and Alexander-Walker to Blacksburg, Va., and on Saturday it’ll lead them into another head-to-head battle at Rupp Arena.
“I wouldn’t even call them cousins,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said. “They’re more Irish twins.”
Right down to the flying elbows and insults. Yes, considering each other brothers as they do, neither is inclined to avoid trash talk.
Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-foot-6 combo guard with a 7-foot wing span who is averaging 10.1 points, 4.4 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 steals for the eighth-ranked Wildcats, said he won most of their childhood battles. He knows that Alexander-Walker, a 6-5 guard with a 6-9 wingspan who is averaging 14.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and shooting 48 percent from 3-point range for the 9-1 Hokies, will deny that.
“I definitely am a better trash talker,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He won’t deny that.”
There wasn’t as much this week — most generic my-team-is-better-than-yours stuff — because, “I don’t want to hurt his spirit,” he said. “I’ll let the game hurt his spirit.”
Gilgeous-Alexander grinned as he said that, per usual, same as his forever-happy cousin. Kentucky coach John Calipari figures it must be something about Canadians, since former North Pole Cats like Jamal Murray and Mychal Mulder were always smiling, too.
The basketball isn’t bad up there either. Gilgeous-Alexander and his cousin are both legitimate NBA prospects — ESPN ranks NAW and SGA the 23rd– and 47th-best prospects available for the 2018 draft — continuing a recent uprising in Candian basketball.
Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Murray are budding stars and Duke-bound R.J. Barrett is the No. 1 overall recruit in the current class.
“It’s an honor, really, to put Canada on the map,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, and now he and Alexander-Walker get to share the big stage Saturday. “We’re both just excited to get out there and put on a show. We’ve been dreaming about this our whole life. We’ve never had a real basketball game against each other.”
No, just countless games of one-on-one at one of their houses. Gilgeous-Alexander’s father is the brother of Alexander-Walker’s mother. They figure they went at each other on the court every weekend during the school year and almost every day in the summers as kids.
“It’s really weird,” Alexander-Walker said. “We’re really close — he’s like my brother — so I feel like I’m playing myself. I know everything about him [and] he knows everything about me.”
Saturday, they’ll both know what it’s like to go one-on-one in front of 23,000 people at Rupp and a national audience on television. Winner gets the ultimate bragging rights and the loser can’t lie about the outcome.