Despite all its storied history, Kentucky basketball is about the future tense. Further evidence came at Friday’s news conference.
A 14-2 record, No. 6 ranking and the makings of another national championship contender seems to be falling into place. But Topic A was a new five-star addition: Hamidou Diallo, who was about to participate in his first practice.
How good, a reporter asked, was Diallo with the ball in the open court?
“Let me coach him one day,” UK Coach John Calipari said in a deadpan tone, “and I’ll let you know.”
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Chuckling ensued as reporters remembered to hold their horses.
Diallo will not play against Auburn on Saturday. Nor is he likely to play for Kentucky this season. The plan, which Calipari reiterated, is for Diallo to familiarize himself with the program and his new teammates, become arguably the country’s best practice player and then be prepared to not only play next season but lead the next freshman-dependent Kentucky team.
That’s all in the future. Calipari voiced ultra-modest expectations for Friday’s debut practice.
“What I would imagine is he will look a little lost,” Calipari said.
Calipari seemed to rule out the possibility of Diallo playing this season on an emergency basis. Say, foul trouble (De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk each picked up two fouls before the first television timeout at Vanderbilt on Tuesday) or injury.
“No, I wouldn’t do it for me or the program,” Calipari said. “The only way that would happen is if it’s in his interest. The situation wouldn’t matter. Up. Down. Sideways. Wouldn’t matter.
“What I see is he needs to get squared away. ‘Let’s get a base set, and then come back (next season) and do your thing.’ That would be my recommendation if he asks me.”
Diallo will travel with the team to away games, but not put on a uniform, Calipari said.
Calipari suggested ways Diallo can contribute as a practice player. “He can guard them, and he can make them come and bring it because he’s a long, athletic player,” the UK coach said.
Of course, Diallo joined the Kentucky team 16 games into the season. Calipari spoke of giving the newcomer “a couple things” in order to give him a sense of what to do initially.
Fox saw the challenge of keeping up with teammates who have been drilling and/or playing games for about six months daunting.
“It would have been extremely difficult for me,” Fox said. “I didn’t really struggle at the beginning. In the middle of the season when everybody is starting to hit their peaks, you’re at the bottom of the barrel. You don’t really know what’s going on. It’s extremely difficult.”
On the plus side, Diallo does not bear any of the burden annually heaped upon Kentucky basketball players. His time to be super-duper comes next season.
“I don’t think you have any pressure,” Fox said of Diallo’s present position. “He doesn’t have anything to lose. He’s just coming in with a clear mind, and trying to get better.”
Freshmen joining college teams at midseason is becoming less unusual. Auburn’s freshman center, Austin Wiley, made his debut against Mercer on Dec. 18. He had practiced only two days prior to playing.
Calipari pointed out that it’s not unusual for high school graduates to join college football teams at the semester break, participate in spring drills and then be eligible to play the following fall.
As for basketball, “I don’t recommend it,” Calipari said. But the coach also said he understands why a player would. “I’m not saying, do it. But if you’re of age and you can do it, I just don’t know why you wouldn’t.”
Fox suggested that Diallo, as a high school player, passed the eye test in terms of physical maturity.
“He was just so strong and just so big and physical,” Fox said. “More physical than anybody. So he could bully his way to the basket. He’s always been able to shoot the ball. If you’re in his way when he’s on his way to the basket, you’re most likely to get dunked on.”
Unlike cautious Cal, Fox offered an opinion of how Diallo can play in the open court.
“It’s ridiculous,” Fox said. “If he played now, he’d be one of the best players in the country in the open court. He’s so fast and athletic. I mean, he’s, like, 6-6 with a 7-foot wingspan. It’s extremely difficult to stop him.”
Auburn at No. 6 Kentucky
When: 4 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Auburn 11-5 (1-3 SEC), Kentucky 14-2 (4-0)
Series: Kentucky leads 91-18
Last meeting: Auburn won 75-70 on Jan. 16, 2016, at Auburn, Ala.