Before the season, Kentucky Coach John Calipari gushed about the improvement Isaac Humphries had made.
“Way better,” he said. “When you see Isaac run, you’re going to say, ‘My goodness.’ Like he’s not even the same guy. Much more confident. Much more physical. Much more skilled … He’s got a way to go, but it’s what you want to see.”
Going into Saturday’s game against Arkansas, Humphries is averaging 3.8 points and 4.1 rebounds. Better than last season’s 1.9 ppg and 2.4 rpg, but perhaps a bit short of my-goodness for a UK team in search of a solid backup to big man Bam Adebayo.
“It’s not how I planned it going,” Humphries said Friday. “But, you know, we all have to face adversity at some point in our lives. It just happened to be my time, and I’m dealing with it.
“I’m almost certain I’m out of that little slump, and on the rise to a more positive time of the season.”
Humphries looked “really good” in Thursday’s practice, Calipari said. “Like really good.”
When asked about the practice, Humphries sounded upbeat.
“Very positive, and in a good mindset now,” he said.
Humphries credited the extra time available during the semester break, a time colloquially known as Camp Cal. He also noted help from associate coach Kenny Payne.
“He’s just been trying to really, like, make me mentally tough, to try to take on everything that he’s giving me,” Humphries said. “Because, obviously, the games are very intense, and they get crazy sometimes. He tries to simulate that kind of environment.”
While acknowledging that he can get ahead of himself by rushing on the court, Humphries envisioned himself as a multi-faceted contributor when at peak efficiency.
“Rebounding, scoring in the post and an outside shot sometimes,” he said. “Trying to play hard and fight. That’s what I would bring to the team at my best.”
With all the shouting, frowning and obligatory dissatisfaction, coaching love might seem like an oxymoron. But Calipari said that love is part of his coaching.
“I have to call them in every once in a while and say, ‘You know, I love you, now,’” he said. “‘You know I’m about you. If you can’t take a coach who is for you personally, I don’t know how to help you.’
“Some of the guys, I have to tell them I believe in them more than they believe in themselves at times.”
Humphries vouched for Calipari’s brand of tough love.
“He does do that a lot,” he said. “He definitely reminds us every day he’s only trying to help us. Regardless of what’s happening and what’s being said.
“For me, we’ve had a lot of meetings about him believing in me and just trusting the process and all that sort of thing. We all know he loves us and stuff like that.”
After UK beat Texas A&M, Calipari said Isaiah Briscoe needed to put more arc on shots from the lane in order to reduce the number that are blocked. Briscoe seemed hesitant to change how he plays.
Calipari cleared up any confusion about Briscoe shooting those shots higher. “He’s changing because we’re doing it in practice,” the UK coach said.
Calipari suggested that Briscoe worked harder to avoid defenders last season because he did not want to shoot free throws (46 percent accuracy). With better accuracy this season (73.7 percent), Briscoe is not as determined to avoid the possible contact associated with a shot blocker, Calipari seemed to say.
UK’s basic priorities on drives into the lane are: 1. Make the shot; 2. Get the ball to the rim area so a teammate can have a chance for a put-back.
“Dude, you’re getting blocks when we should be getting baskets,” Calipari said he told Briscoe. “In a close game, we can’t afford it.”
At the mid-point of the season, Calipari said that decisions had been made on how to get the best from players and the team.
Briscoe needed more height on his shots from the lane. Malik Monk needed to get to the foul line more. De’Aaron Fox needed to play faster. Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel needed to stay in front of their man.
“We have a way to go,” Calipari said, “but I’m happy we’re on the path we’re on.”
The marketing major in Calipari seemed to come out as he spoke of Gabriel needing to stop watching the ball after the shot is taken. Instead he should get in rebound position.
“It’s not changing,” Calipari said of his instruction to Gabriel. “It’s creating new habits.”
Arkansas won at Tennessee on Tuesday. Earlier this season, the Hogs beat Texas in a game played in Houston.
That road success follows a long dry spell. Under former coaches Stan Heath and John Pelphrey, Arkansas had a 13-59 record in SEC road games.
In his first two seasons, Mike Anderson was 2-15 in league road games. His record is 13-15 since.
“I think you’ve got players that have been with you and you get them to understand that whether you’re at home or on the road, there’s a certain way you’ve got to play,” Anderson said of the upsurge. “. . . You’ve got to get to the free-throw line. You’ve got to play defense. You’ve got to make shots. You’ve got to have players make plays.
“To me, the buildup was I finally got guys here who embody what I’m all about. You’ve got to have a mindset. You’ve got to play with toughness.”
Bovada has shortened the odds of UK winning the national championship: from 7-to-1 on Nov. 10 to the current 6-to-1. Duke, which had been a 15-to-4 favorite, is now a 5-to-1 co-favorite with UCLA, which was a 50-to-1 shot on Nov. 10.
Kansas, North Carolina and Villanova are all 11-to-1 to win the title. Louisville, which was a 40-to-1 shot, has had its odds shortened to 25-to-1.
After Kentucky, the next best odds for an SEC team winning the national championship belong to Florida: 100-to-1.
▪ Arkansas’ 12-2 record equals the best 14-game start in Anderson’s six seasons as coach.
▪ UK and Arkansas are the top two SEC scoring teams with averages of 94.0 ppg and 82.6 ppg.
▪ The media voted Moses Kingsley the preseason SEC Player of the Year. He’s averaging 11.1 points and 8.8 rebounds and three blocks.
▪ Dave Neal, Jon Sundvold and sideline reporter Tara Petrolino will call the game for the SEC Network.