“Heart and soul” of Kentucky’s team. The tie that binds the Cats. “Just a winner.”
Southeastern Conference coaches gushed about the contributions Isaiah Briscoe makes for UK this season. This praise neither embarrassed nor — to borrow from the word of the day at Monday’s news conference — fazed Briscoe.
When asked if he relished the role of valued team leader, Briscoe answered with a question. “Who wouldn’t?” he said. “I think I deserve it.”
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Briscoe pointed out the extra time he’s spent in the gym, work reflected in dramatically improved shooting: From 13.5-percent accuracy from three-point range last season to 42.3, and from 46-percent free throwing to 70.3.
“I’ve been in here every day,” he said. “Before practice, after practice working out. In practice giving 110 percent every day.
“So it’s not like all that was given.”
Assistant coach Joel Justus, who substituted for John Calipari at the news conference, saluted Briscoe’s contributions.
“What we’re proud of (is) he is the first guy talking and the last guy talking,” Justus said. “Offense. Defense. Timeouts. He’s the guy you can say is the straw that stirs the drink.”
Several SEC coaches said much the same thing on a teleconference earlier in the day.
Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland, whose team plays Kentucky on Tuesday, suggested Briscoe would be a prominent part of the game plan.
“When I think of Kentucky, the heart and soul of that team is Briscoe,” Howland said. “Briscoe is the guy if you told me who am I most worried about? I’m worried about him. He makes it happen. They need a tough basket, he’s going to deliver. He’s just a winner who makes everybody around him better. And you can’t say enough (about) Briscoe and what he does.”
Justus welcomed SEC coaches recognizing Briscoe’s contributions that can go unnoticed.
“When you’re with him every day and you’re in the gym with him and in the huddle with him, you see how valuable he is,” Justus said.
All could see Briscoe’s ability to make the clutch play in UK’s last two games — at Vanderbilt and again against Auburn on Saturday.
When Auburn closed a 14-point deficit to 60-56 in barely three minutes, Briscoe eased the growing anxiety by hitting a three-pointer. To make threes was especially satisfying given that Briscoe made only five of 37 shots from three-point range last season.
“Like I said, I’ve been working for it,” he said. “I’m in here busting my butt. Good things happen when you work.”
Although Malik Monk’s scoring can veer toward astounding and De’Aaron Fox excels as the point guard, SEC coaches view Briscoe as a key contributor, too, albeit in a way that requires a discerning eye.
“Isaiah is the guy that kind of holds them together … ,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said. “He’s kind of like that string that ties them all together, and makes big plays for them.”
Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy revived a theme from last season: Briscoe’s play can be overshadowed by his backcourt mates.
“The Briscoe kid doesn’t get the attention he deserves,” Kennedy said. “He just sets the tone on both ends of the floor for them. There’s not another guard in our league like him who can physically dominate you on the defensive end. And then offensively do the things he’s doing. He’s just bullying people right now.”
Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray drew much more attention last season, which led Calipari at one point to say Briscoe was overshadowed.
Now Monk and Fox cast the bigger shadows.
Briscoe dismissed acclaim as unimportant.
“I appreciate it,” he said of the kind words, “but I’m just trying to win.”
That metaphorical shrug showed a part of Briscoe’s contribution that might go relatively unsung.
Monk described it as an unflappable court presence. “He just makes us more comfortable,” UK’s leading scorer said. “He tells us we’ll be all right.”
Justus also noted Briscoe’s steadiness under fire, whether opposing players or fans or the UK bench stokes the flames.
“Nothing fazes him,” Justus said. “Coach Cal doesn’t faze him. He’s embraced everything that is the day-to-day grind that is Kentucky basketball.”
When asked if any coach wants to faze the players, Justus clarified and said he meant that Briscoe understands the method to coaching madness.
A question about not being fazed by Calipari brought a smile to Briscoe’s face. He knows what’s required.
“Me and Coach just have an understanding,” he said.
Kentucky at Mississippi State
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 15-2 (5-0 SEC), Mississippi State 12-4 (3-1)
Series: Kentucky leads 93-20
Last meeting: Kentucky won 80-74 on Jan. 12, 2016, in Lexington