The Toughest Player in Kentucky College Basketball makes coaches question the rigor of their pre-season conditioning programs.
When the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers began conditioning drills before the 2017-18 season, freshman Taveion Hollingsworth, all 165 pounds of him, dominated.
“I never had a freshman lead us in conditioning — in front in all these suicide (drills) and making his time,” WKU Coach Rick Stansbury said. “That’s good and bad. It’s good that a freshman is doing it; it’s bad he’s beating seniors.”
In Lexington, Scott Chalk, the Paul Laurence Dunbar boys’ basketball coach, has the same story.
“When Taveion came (to PLD) as a freshman, he led every drill in our conditioning,” Chalk says of the former Dunbar star. “He led the sprints; he led the distance (running).”
In a standout freshman season at WKU, conditioning drills are only one challenge Hollingsworth has surmounted.
The Toughest Player in Kentucky College Basketball broke his nose in Western’s 73-64 loss at Texas-San Antonio on Feb. 3.
“I pump faked (a defender), he jumped and I tried to go,” Hollingsworth says. “I ran into something. I think it was the dude’s hip bone.”
Hollingsworth’s nose was broken on a Saturday night. WKU’s next game was the following Thursday. In between, Bowling Green Orthotics & Prosthetics rushed to get a “Rip Hamilton-type” facial mask ready that would allow Hollingsworth to play with his nose broken.
The finished product did not get to Hollingsworth until midway through Western’s practice the night before the Hilltoppers faced Florida Atlantic.
As a rule, no one ever seems to play well in their first game wearing a facial mask. The 6-foot-2 Hollingsworth hit eight of 12 shots, scored 20 points, grabbed five rebounds and had two assists with no turnovers in a 75-63 WKU victory.
“Most guys, (the first game in a facial mask) would be an excuse,” Stansbury said. “(It would be) ‘Why I can’t make shots. Why I can’t defend, why I can’t do some things.’ It was zero (excuse) from him. Zero. He has one of the greatest abilities you can have — toughness.”
The Toughest Player in Kentucky College Basketball has even surprised himself with how well he’s played as a college freshman.
Going into Western Kentucky’s Thursday night game with Charlotte, Hollingsworth had started every game for the Hilltoppers (20-7). He was averaging 13.4 points while making 50.2 percent of his field goals and 40.3 percent of his three-point shots. He also usually guards the opponents’ best perimeter scorer.
“I am kind of surprised how I am playing,” Hollingsworth says. “I thought it would take me longer to adjust (to college basketball). But Coach gave me an opportunity to start playing as soon as the games started and I have just kind of got used to it.”
In three WKU games this season against power-five conference foes — Villanova, Purdue and Wisconsin — Hollingsworth hit 12 of 25 shots and averaged 12 points and 3.7 rebounds.
“There’s not a lot of ups and downs (with Hollingsworth),” Stansbury says. “He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low. He plays at an even keel.”
The Toughest Player in Kentucky College Basketball is using his WKU uniform to honor a friend in Lexington taken far too soon.
In a stellar career at Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hollingsworth led the school to the 2016 Sweet Sixteen championship while earning State Tournament MVP honors. Last year, he was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball. No one who has ever played boys’ high school basketball in Fayette County has scored more than the 2,495 career points Hollingsworth amassed.
He did that wearing No. 11.
This year at WKU, he sports a different number.
Hollingsworth was among those participating in an open gym at Dunbar last April 26 when one of his Bulldogs teammates, sophomore Star Ifeacho, began to have trouble breathing.
“It was crazy. It was a normal day, we were just working out,” Hollingsworth says. “He said he thought he had asthma. He just left the gym and that was the last time ...”
Ifeacho, 15, died that day from cardiomyopathy, an abnormality in the heart muscle.
At Dunbar, Ifeacho had worn No. 13 for basketball. Now, Hollingsworth wears that number for WKU.
“I thought I would pick that number to represent him,” Hollingsworth says.
The Toughest Player in Kentucky College Basketball is synonymous with high school hoops in Lexington. Yet Taveion Hollingsworth has Harlan County in his blood.
His parents, Kathy Sweatt and Maurice Hollingsworth, were both basketball standouts for the Harlan Green Dragons.
Sweatt was the fourth-ranked girls player in the 13th Region in the 1996-97 Herald-Leader preseason rankings. Maurice Hollingsworth played his first two high school seasons under Billy Hicks, the current Scott County coach.
“Talk about a kid with bloodlines. (Taveion’s) dad, Mo, was a super athlete,” Hicks says. “His grandfather, ‘Big Maurice’ Hollingsworth, played football at Morehead State and was a track star at Harlan. He could fly. And the other side of the family, the Sweatts, they were athletes, too.”
The Toughest Player in Kentucky College Basketball is thriving at WKU. “I love this school,” Hollingsworth says.
Yet, growing up in Lexington, Western was not the school of Hollingsworth’s basketball dreams. In 2015, Hollingsworth told the Herald-Leader’s Ben Roberts a chance to play for the hometown Kentucky Wildcats would be his “dream offer.”
As his recruitment headed toward a climax in the fall of 2016, UK made him a conditional scholarship offer.
“UK told me, if you are willing to wait (and sign in the spring), then we can give you a scholarship,” Hollingsworth says. “I think they wanted the people they (really) wanted first, then I would come after that.”
Hollingsworth had long conversations with his parents over what to do. In his heart, he kept coming back to the fact WKU was treating him as a priority recruit.
“I don’t like to be anybody’s backup plan,” Hollingsworth says. “WKU told me they would give me a scholarship on point. So that’s what I chose.”
It turns out, there is something that frightens The Toughest Player in Kentucky College Basketball.
Last summer, Hollingsworth became a father when his daughter, Aubrey, was born.
“She’s a blessing,” Hollingsworth says. “I love her to death.”
Does the new dad participate in diaper changing?
“I have when she peed, but not when she poops,” Hollingsworth says. “I’m not touching that diaper. Her mom does that.”