UK Men's Basketball

Do Kentuckians bring something special to a UK team? ‘It kind of ups the ante.’

Kentucky players preview showdown against Wichita State in Second Round of NCAA Tournament

Malik Monk and the Kentucky Wildcats look ahead to a tough matchup against Wichita State in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.
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Malik Monk and the Kentucky Wildcats look ahead to a tough matchup against Wichita State in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

The last native Kentuckian to lead Kentucky in scoring? That would be Scott Padgett nearly 20 years ago (1998-99 to be exact).

You have to go back nearly 40 years to find the last native Kentuckian to lead a national championship-winning UK team in scoring (Jack Givens in 1977-78). Since then, leading scorers on title teams came from, ugh, Tennessee (Tony Delk in 1995-96), Georgia (Jeff Sheppard in 1997-98) and Chicago (Anthony Davis in 2011-12).

With Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis regular contributors this season, an obvious question comes to mind: Do Kentuckians bring something special, some hard-to-define intangible to a UK team? Or is basketball a meritocracy where talent, athleticism and desire rule? Birthplace has nothing to do with it.

“I don’t know,” said Isaiah Briscoe, who is from Newark, N.J. “I can’t speak on that. I’m not from Kentucky.”

This response did not surprise Willis, who is from Mount Washington.

“It’s one of those things they’re not really going to understand,” he said of the non-Kentuckians on Kentucky’s team. “Like I would not understand. ’Zay is from New Jersey. I don’t understand some Jersey things.”

Willis said he believed being from Kentucky makes a difference.

“It kind of ups the ante a little bit more,” he said. “I feel there’s a lot more pride that comes with it.”

Anthony Epps, a native of Lebanon and the point guard on UK’s 1996 national championship team, spoke of a passion that flows between fans and native-born players. Each sparks the other. “You just get a different emotion and vibe from the fans,” he said.

This also happens with the UK’s women’s team, where his daughter, Makayla Epps, stars, he said.

Cameron Mills, a native of Lexington and a contributor on UK’s 1998 national championship team, referenced the cliché about playing for the name on the front of the jersey as opposed to the name on the back.

“At some level, you’re always playing for the name on the back of the jersey because you represent your family and yourself,” he said. “But when you’re from Kentucky, there’s a much higher degree of thinking in terms of the good of the Commonwealth, the good of the university and the good of the program.”

When asked how this kind of thinking impacts performance, Mills echoed Briscoe’s comment. “To be honest, I don’t know what the correlation is,” he said. “I don’t know if statistics even back it up.

“Honestly, I kind of hope it doesn’t.”

Ideally, the passion and pride that might drive a native Kentuckian does not distinguish him from his UK teammates.

“I hope that’s the case,” Mills said. “That you really can’t tell a difference.”

‘I’m a refugee’

A story in The New York Times this month detailed an ongoing internal war in South Sudan. The story detailed a war “engulfing new, previously peaceful areas of the nation, spelling horror and signifying something deeper: This country is cracking apart.”

Of course, South Sudan is the ancestral home of UK freshman Wenyen Gabriel.

South Sudan went through a protracted war to gain its independence from Sudan. Gabriel reminded a reporter that when he was 2 years old, he and his family fled to Egypt and then the United States to escape the fighting.

“I’m a refugee from that war,” he said. “My grandfather died in the war. A lot of my family died in that war.”

Gabriel had hoped to visit South Sudan last summer. The need to move to Kentucky and begin adjusting to college made that impossible.

“I still want to go back and visit my home,” he said.

President Donald Trump’s original travel ban included Sudan as a country from which the U.S. would not accept refugees. Legal issues surrounding such a ban remain to be decided.

Gabriel said he was not worried about being able to return to the U.S. should he get to visit South Sudan.

“I’m a citizen,” he said, “so it doesn’t apply to me, personally.”

Art or science?

As they say, a referee is doing a good job if no one notices him or her. If so, Don Rutledge made the perfect exit last weekend.

Rutledge, 76, quietly retired after 40 years of working, first as a referee and then as an assistant to the SEC’s supervisor of officials. The SEC Tournament was his last assignment.

The burden of travel made Rutledge decide the time was right to retire. So did the changing nature of officiating.

“They’re trying to make a science out of an art,” he said. “They’re trying to make every call right. You can’t do that. It’s impossible.”

What Rutledge seemed to be saying was that officiating was more than making correct calls. The referees must also control the game, pacify coaches and bring a sense of justice and authority.

John Clougherty, one of Rutledge’s colleagues, agreed with the idea that an artful exercise in human relations was being reduced to merely deciding if Player X dragged his pivot foot.

“The advance of technology has exposed officials,” Clougherty said. “Everybody’s looking over their shoulders. …

“How many personalities do you see anymore? There’s a few Teddy Valentines still out there. But the young guys are interchangeable.”

Making every call the correct call is impossible, Clougherty said.

“The game is so fast and things are happening so fast,” he said. “If you start thinking too much, the play is going to be by you and you’re not going to have a whistle.”

Human judgment suffers.

“Officiating shouldn’t be A-B-C,” Clougherty said. “It just shouldn’t be. But I think that’s where they’re going.”


Don Rutledge and John Clougherty were two of the referees in the famous Villanova-Georgetown championship game in 1985.

Clougherty remembered Rutledge as a top official.

“He had all the tools, starting with his stature,” Clougherty said. “There weren’t any holes in his game. He had the entire package, and he had personality. He could communicate with players and coaches. They trusted him.”

Rutledge called his last game in 2000. When he retired as a referee, he received letters from two coaches: Bob Knight and Denny Crum. Another coach, Eddie Fogler, called to offer well wishes.

A 3-handicap golfer, Rutledge said he hoped to hit the links in retirement.

Civility lives

Just when a cynic had given up hope that civility could be part of athletics, the First Four provided blessed reassurance.

New Orleans’ day-before-the-game news conference in Dayton included Coach Mark Slessinger, three players and eight reporters. The black curtains bordering the setting gave it a gloomy, otherworldly feel.

When the questions and responses ended, the three players left their seats at the front table and personally shook the hands of each reporter and thanked them for attending.


Does the NCAA put too much importance on selling tickets by trying to pack early-round sites with relatively nearby teams? For instance, Kentucky, Louisville and Northern Kentucky all played in Indianapolis. Dayton and Michigan were within easy driving distance.

Selling tickets and making money drives decisions on seeding and bracketing, Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin said recently. “Anyone who thinks this isn’t a business is wrong (and) living in a fantasy land,” he said.

When asked his opinion, UK Coach John Calipari defended the Selection Committee by steering the conversation to a new favorite topic: something he calls “transparency.”

In his response, Calipari used some variance of the word transparency nine times.

Seeding then and now

Speaking of transparency, John Calipari has touted the Selection Committee’s Feb. 11 announcement of the top 16 seeds at that stage of the process as an example of greater transparency.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi called the Feb. 11 announcement a public relations stunt.

Comparing the Feb. 11 announcement with Selection Sunday showed that five of the 16 teams remained with the same seed in the same region: Villanova as No. 1 in the East, Gonzaga as No. 1 in the West, Kansas as No. 1 in the Midwest, West Virginia as No. 4 in the West and Butler as No. 4 in the South.

Kentucky moved from No. 3 in the East to No. 2 in the South.

Louisville stayed as a No. 2, but moved from the East to the Midwest.

Only three teams moved more than one seed line: Virginia from a No. 3 to a No. 5, Duke from a No. 4 to a No. 2 and Baylor from a No. 1 to a No. 3.

Happy birthday

To Jim Master. He turned 55 on Thursday. … To Sam Bowie. He turned 56 on Friday. … To Patrick Sparks. He turned 34 on Friday. … To Skal Labissiere. He turned 21 on Saturday. … To Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl. He turned 57 on Saturday. … To Cory Sears. He turns 37 on Sunday (today). … To Pat Riley. He turns 72 on Monday. … To Jerry Hale. He turns 64 on Monday. … To Jimmy Dan Conner. He turns 64 on Monday. … To Darius Miller. He turns 27 on Tuesday. … To Troy McKinley. He turns 54 on Tuesday. … To Wayne Turner. He turns 41 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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