Surprises in the best sense of the word have marked this Kentucky basketball preseason. Coach John Calipari added freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe to that list Thursday.
"I knew he'd be good," Calipari said. "I didn't know he'd be this good."
After UK played Ottawa on Monday, Calipari said Briscoe could be the best defender in the country this season. This led the player to text his coach.
"'I believe I can be the best defender,'" Calipari said the text read. "And I said, 'You're more than an A-grade defender. You're a heck of a player.'"
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Calipari allowed that Briscoe had a "few flaws" to correct. But, the UK coach added, "He's a basketball player who happens to be physically able to be a great defensive player."
Calipari lauded Briscoe's competitive spirit.
"He has a will to win," Calipari said. "We just have to help him with the other stuff."
Earlier this preseason, Calipari said Briscoe had to eliminate trash-talking and needless dribbling.
After Kentucky played Ottawa, Briscoe said again that he welcomed the changes.
"I actually like playing the way I play now better than how I played before," he said. "Because I'm not using as much energy dribbling. When I first got on campus, Coach Cal said, 'You'll be much better if you play in straight lines. Ever since then, I've been trying my hardest to play in straight lines, and I think I've gotten a lot better since I got here."
One example of immediate improvement has come at the foul line.
Briscoe made only one of six free throws in the Blue-White Game. This led to a challenge from Calipari.
"If that's who you are, you can't be in the game late," Calipari said he told Briscoe. "And I said that in front of the team. 'You do know that, right?'"
Briscoe made three of four free throws against Ottawa.
"Now, he did shoot an air ball," Calipari said. "Three of four, I'll take an air ball. Matter of fact, go eight of 10, and I'll take two air balls."
Summing up, Calipari said of Briscoe, "He's been good. Maybe even a pleasant surprise."
It's too early for Calipari to settle on a rotation. But he said he liked the three-guard lineup that started against Ottawa.
"It was very good," he said before repeating, "It was very good."
Calipari said he had moved toward a decision about a rotation "a little bit." But, he added, the number of players in a rotation could be as few as five or six or as many as seven or eight.
Not for the first time, Calipari said that players must outplay teammates in order to put themselves in position to be in a rotation.
When asked about Charles Matthews, Calipari seemed to say the freshman was trying too hard.
"Charles needs to just relax and play ... ," Calipari said. "He wants to be perfect. You're not going to be perfect. He knows how we want him to play."
Matthews scored 17 points in the Blue-White Game. Against Ottawa, he scored four points.
Calipari singled out a missed three-pointer as ill-advised. Matthews passed up the chance to dribble to the elbow area for a shot. "Which he makes," Calipari said. "So he took a three, an air ball. That was his choice to take that when we're working every day on the elbow (shot)."
Calipari summed up the approach Matthews should take as "Not a playmaker. He's a finisher. And that's how he's got to play."
Kentucky State is the competition in UK's exhibition game Friday. The game marks the head coaching debut of Kentucky State Coach Darnell Williams.
A debut against No. 2 Kentucky in Rupp Arena is not dipping a toe into the water. It's a plunge into the deep end of the pool. "With a couple sharks in there," Williams said Wednesday.
Calipari suggested a more upbeat approach.
"Got a chance to do something crazy," he said. "That's what I'd be thinking. You know, like, let's go do this and see if we can shock the world. Let's rock everything."
Rich Hollenberg and Dino Gaudio will call the game for ESPNU.