Two opposing freshmen in Kentucky’s game against Virginia Tech are related. But the exact nature of the ties that bind can be difficult to describe.
UK’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker are cousins. Shai’s father is Nickeil’s uncle. Nickeil’s mother is a sister to Shai’s father.
But when asked about the players’ relationship, those close to Shai and Nickeil zoom past cousins.
“They’re cousins, but they’re definitely more like brothers,” said Zach Ferrell, who coached them at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“He and I have a strong relationship,” Nickeil said on a teleconference Wednesday. “He’s like a brother to me.”
Whether it be Snapchat or Facebook or texts or actually speaking to each other, the two communicate daily, sometimes multiple times in a day, Nickeil said.
Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams dusted off a seldom-heard term to describe the closeness between Shai and Nickeil.
“I wouldn’t even call them cousins (although) I know they are,” he said. “They’re more Irish twins.”
Irish twins used to be how to describe siblings born to the same mother within a year’s time.
Nickeil grew up in Toronto, Canada. Shai grew up in Hamilton, which is about 40 miles west along the coast of Lake Ontario.
“But every weekend I was either at his house or he was at my house,” Nickeil said. “Every day in summer we were together practicing and doing things we love to do together.”
Shai’s father, Vaughn Alexander, coached the boys. Or as Nickeil put it, “his dad/my uncle.”
For their junior and senior years of high school, Shai and Nickeil moved to Chattanooga to play for the Ferrell-coached team at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy. Shai and Nickeil lived in Ferrell’s home.
“Shared a room,” Ferrell said. “Ate all meals, did everything together. . . . There’s probably nothing about Nickeil that Shai doesn’t know and there’s nothing about Shai that Nickeil doesn’t know.”
Ferrell recalled his son, Peyton, taking his first steps with Shai and Nickeil watching.
“One of the first words he said was Shai,” Ferrell said of Peyton.
When asked if Peyton said Shai before momma and da-da, Ferrell laughed and said, “No. He did not say Shai before momma and da-da. But it was probably No. 3.”
Recruiting and college basketball separated Shai and Nickeil.
Shai committed to Florida as a high school junior. Then as he improved, he reconsidered and ultimately signed with Kentucky.
Nickeil committed to Virginia Tech in the spring of his junior year. Though Southern Cal and Maryland subsequently offered scholarships, he did not change his mind.
Nickeil (pronounced Nick-keel) dismissed the notion that he might have envied Shai joining a higher-profile team like Kentucky.
“I was more excited for him because that’s a big-time place to go that put him in the right position to do what we dreamed about since we were kids,” Nickeil said. “I knew with my decision, I’d do the same thing. . . . I was nothing but happy (for Shai), nothing but cheerful. Never once thought about why wasn’t I being recruited (by Kentucky) because I knew things are going to happen for a reason. And time would tell.”
Shai and Nickeil are similarly sized. UK lists Shai at 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds. Virginia Tech lists Nickeil at 6-5, 210.
Ferrell said the cousins/brothers/Irish twins played one-on-one “hundreds of times.” Each won and lost his share.
Nickeil recalled the competition getting heated. “I hate losing to him,” he said. “He hates losing to me. It’s a competitive spirit that we have. That made us better. It also helped us . . . work on our weaknesses.”
The one-on-one rivalry disappeared when the two were teammates.
“When he had, like, 30 points every game, I was his biggest fan,” Nickeil said. “I was one of his biggest supporters. Still will be to this day.
“Just seeing him do well makes me happy because his family and I want nothing but the best for him.”
Shai and Nickeil are off to good starts as college players. Shai has made more than half his shots (32 of 63), averages 10.1 points and leads Kentucky with 21 steals. Nickeil averages 14.4 points and has made nearly half his three-point shots (21 of 44).
Ferrell, who will not be able to attend Saturday’s game, expects Shai and Nickeil to be matched up, especially when Quade Green is UK’s point guard.
“It’s weird,” Nickeil said of a possible matchup against Shai. “It’s a little weird. Really close to him. He’s like my brother. I feel like I’m playing myself.”
Virginia Tech at No. 8 Kentucky
2 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)