If Saturday’s victory over South Carolina is a guide, star freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox’s absence could adversely impact Kentucky’s performance, associate coach Kenny Payne said Monday.
Fox, who injured an ankle in the first half against South Carolina, means “a lot” to UK, Payne said. “I think you saw a little bit of an adjustment we had to make. We went through a spell where, without him, we were a little confused (and) discombobulated.
“But we got it together, which is a great sign of a good team.”
Earlier in the day, Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes, whose team plays Kentucky on Tuesday, spoke of UK being formidable even if Fox is sidelined.
“Whether he plays or not,” Barnes said, “I still know that their program is built on an attitude that if a guy goes down, somebody else is going to step in and ‘we’re going to keep rolling.’”
Payne did not say definitively if Fox would play at Tennessee. “I think he’s day-to-day,” Payne said.
Fox is UK’s second-leading scorer (16.2 points per game). He’s also shot the second-most free throws (107), so he gets to the foul line. He leads the Cats in steals (30).
But maybe most importantly, he leads the team’s trademark fast-paced style.
“De’Aaron kind of controls the game because he’s really a threat with his quickness,” Wenyen Gabriel said.
Other point guards like Isaiah Briscoe and Dominique Hawkins make for a slower pace.
“It’s just a different style of play, and we have to adjust to it,” Isaac Humphries said. “That’s fine. We adjust on the run, and it’s all good.”
Briscoe ‘at peace’
Earlier in the day, the United States Basketball Writers Association said Fox and UK teammate Malik Monk were on its midseason watch lists for National Player and Freshman awards.
This led to a question about Briscoe’s contributions being overshadowed again, as they were by Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray last season.
“It’s easier to talk about Malik and De’Aaron because they’re so athletic,” Payne said. “They’re so fast. They’re so dynamic.
“Isaiah Briscoe stabilizes this team. He’s been great for us. He’s been a leader on and off the floor.”
Payne noted how much Briscoe has improved since last season.
“Isaiah Briscoe is not the same basketball player,” Payne said. “Not mentally. Not physically. He’s at peace with himself. He’s playing the best he’s ever played. Playing within himself. He’s confident and assured of who he is, and what he is as a player.
“Some people would look at him and say, he’s not a point guard. I’d say to you, do your homework. He is a point guard.”
Not a weak link
Numerically, nothing shows Briscoe’s improvement more than his shooting percentages from three-point range (13.5 percent to 36.7) and the foul line (46 percent to 71.8).
Payne said Briscoe is so comfortable shooting he brags about his accuracy.
“‘They’re not leaving me much anymore,’” Payne said Briscoe will say. “He takes pride in ‘I’m not the weak link from the three-point line.’”
Opponents are not conceding Briscoe the three-point shot, at least not as much as a year ago.
“We know the scouting report from the other team is going to be you’ve got to back off somebody,” Payne said. “Let it be Briscoe. …
“I think it’s good for him to prove ‘you’re not going to play defense like that against me.’”
A showdown with No. 2 Kansas on Saturday gives UK-Tennessee the makings of a so-called trap game. But Payne dismissed that possibility.
“Not with us,” he said. “Every time we step on the floor, you can see it. They’re coming with their best game.”
Tennessee can win
Tennessee can win, Payne said. Going into last weekend’s games, the Vols ranked in the bottom half of 13 of the 21 statistical categories recognized by the SEC. The Vols were sixth or lower in 17 of the categories.
“Tennessee can beat us, regardless of what their record is,” Payne said. “… They’re going to be hungry and aggressive against us.”
On his radio show last week, UK Coach John Calipari said he disliked 9 p.m. starts. Payne echoed the sentiment.
“As adults, we worry about it,” he said. “As kids, they (couldn’t) care less. They probably have more energy at 9 p.m. than we will.”
Gabriel agreed. “I think I like late games,” he said. “I think we all played good the last late game. It doesn’t make a difference to us.”
In its last 9 p.m. start, Kentucky routed Texas A&M 100-58.
Brent Musburger, Sean Farnham and sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung will call the game for ESPN.