A new and improved Isaiah Briscoe caught the eye of Stephen F. Austin Coach Kyle Keller.
“The guy that impressed me the most is Briscoe,” said Keller, an assistant coach at Texas A&M last season. “The kid has really improved. Last year, we didn’t guard him at Texas A&M. Didn’t have to. Now, it looks like he’s really honed his craft. He looks so much more confident on the court: handling the ball, making decisions, running the team.”
In Briscoe’s case, looks are not deceiving. Fans can continue to judge for themselves Friday night as Kentucky opens the regular season against Stephen F. Austin.
“I feel I’ve gotten way better,” Briscoe said Thursday.
He credited UK Coach John Calipari’s call for him to provide leadership as a factor.
“That inspired me to get better, and get others better,” Briscoe said. “Overall, I feel I’m a better person and basketball player.”
When asked how he’s a better person, Briscoe said, “I’ve got to lead by example. I’ve got to work hard. Let them know nothing’s easy. I’m in a better state of mind. I feel a lot more comfortable on the court.”
Briscoe cited another reason for his improvement: a “lot better” relationship with Calipari this season, in part because Tyler Ulis led the way last season and now Briscoe has that role.
“I know what he wants from me,” Briscoe said. “I know what he wants from the team.
“Our relationship had to get better. And it did. It only makes sense. I took on the challenge. I embraced the role.”
Calipari attributed the improved relationship to a player having to adjust as a freshman and then being comfortable as a sophomore.
“The first year is always hard for these kids because they have their way of doing something,” Calipari said. “And it got them here. And they think, ‘I can be this way and go where I’m trying to go.’ And in most cases, you can’t. ...
“You’re not hearing what you want to hear (which translates into) ‘I don’t like him.’ I’m not going to tell you all what you want to hear.”
With that said, Calipari saluted Briscoe’s competitiveness and willingness to learn and adapt.
“If I’m in a foxhole,” the UK coach said, “that’s who I want beside me.”
At this embryonic stage of the season, Calipari offered an assessment of how freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are defending.
Of Fox, Calipari said, “If he’s on the ball, he’s really good. If he’s off the ball, (he is a) typical high school player that you don’t play as hard.”
Of Monk, Calipari said he advises, “Quit trying to steal every ball. ... Play the whole possession. ... You’ve got to grind it.”
Sign of growth
As a sign of growth, Derek Willis recently put something in the metaphorical suggestion box.
“He came up and reminded me we did something in zone offense last year that I wasn’t doing,” Calipari said. “He would have never done that (in previous seasons). That just shows he’s maturing.”
UK freshmen Bam Adebayo and Fox were named to the coaches’ preseason All-SEC first team. Monk and Briscoe made the second team.
Also on the first team were Moses Kingsley of Arkansas, Tyler Davis of Texas A&M, J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten of Georgia, Quinndary Weatherspoon of Mississippi State and Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina.
Vandy forward Luke Kornet, whose ties to Lexington go back generations, was named to the second team. Joining him were Dusty Hannahs of Arkansas, DeVaughn Allen and John Egbunu of Florida, Antonio Blakeney of LSU, Sebastian Saiz of Ole Miss, Matthew Fisher-Davis of Vandy, Monk and Briscoe.
UK trio on list
Adebayo, Fox and Monk were named to the 50-player preseason watch list for the Naismith Trophy, which recognizes the Player of the Year and is sponsored by the Atlanta Tipoff Club.
The only other SEC players on the list were Kingsley and Davis.
When asked if he had discussed with the players the election of Donald Trump as president, Calipari said, “I haven’t. There was an election?”
When told that Alabama football coach Nick Saban had also pleaded ignorance about the election (immersed in coaching, you know), Calipari quipped, “Who is Nick Saban?”
When asked if he preferred to steer clear of politics, Calipari said, “In this state, yes.” As he spoke, he kept his eyes on the floor and shook his head.
▪ Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas” and the namesake of UK’s opening-night opponent, has a Lexington tie. He graduated from Transylvania in 1810.
▪ Dave O’Brien, Doris Burke and sideline reporter Brooke Weisbrod will call the game for the SEC Network.