UK Men's Basketball

UK is always the easy pick to win the SEC, but is UK the correct pick this season?

The excitement of Big Blue Madness at Rupp Arena

Rupp Arena was filled with UK basketball fans as the men’s and women’s basketball teams held their first open practice of the season at the Big Blue Madness event in Rupp Arena on October 13.
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Rupp Arena was filled with UK basketball fans as the men’s and women’s basketball teams held their first open practice of the season at the Big Blue Madness event in Rupp Arena on October 13.

If only all decisions could be as easy as picking Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference championship. In John Calipari’s first eight seasons as coach, UK has won the league five times and had the second-best record twice.

By now, picking Kentucky to win the SEC is an involuntary reflex and almost a guaranteed way to claim clairvoyance at season’s end.

But when this year’s preseason SEC ballot arrived, the voting process had a foreign component. And, nyet, not Russian hackers. This strange phenomenon was . . . doubt.

Dependence on freshmen? That was discarded as unimportant in 2010 when coaches and media ultimately voted a freshman, John Wall, the league’s Player of the Year after he led Kentucky to the league championship.

But Kentucky’s almost complete lack of experience this coming season caused uneasiness. Then there’s one of the heralded freshmen, Jarred Vanderbilt, being sidelined until January. Then there’s talk of the SEC being on a significant uptick with seven or eight teams possibly making the NCAA Tournament.

Then Calipari likened his players to the 2013-14 UK team that finished tied for second, six games behind Florida. “A talented group of kids,” he said of the current Cats, “but they’re not ready to win basketball games.”

This led to a vote for Texas A&M to win the SEC. The Aggies return the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, Robert Williams, an experienced low-post presence in center Tyler Davis and several other veterans.

UK women's basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell performs his dance routine at the 2017 Big Blue Madness event in Rupp Arena.

Point guard play held A&M back last season. The Aggies ranked 320th in turnover percentage. Freshman J.J. Caldwell was supposed to be the point guard, but he was ineligible. This contributed to a 16-15 record last season. He will play this season.

Graduate transfer Duane Wilson, who started at Marquette, gives A&M depth at point guard.

Kentucky was voted at No. 2 and Florida No. 3. But it seems reasonable to make A&M, UK and Florida a trifecta box bet. Those three teams in some order at the top.

After placing Alabama at No. 4, what could be considered the Kentucky effect inspired a vote for Missouri at No. 5. The Tigers have finished last the last three seasons, compiling a league record of 8-46 in that time.

But a star freshman, Michael Porter Jr., is supposed to be a difference-maker, and the Big Blue Nation knows how big a difference one superior freshman can make.

The rest of the order of finish was: 6. Vanderbilt, 7. Auburn, 8. Arkansas, 9. Georgia, 10. Mississippi State, 11. Ole Miss, 12. Tennessee, 13. South Carolina, 14. LSU.

As for the All-SEC team, the five players chosen were Kevin Knox of Kentucky, Yante Maten of Georgia, Quinndary Weatherspoon of Mississippi State, Porter and Williams.

The vote for Player of the Year went to Williams, who is projected as a lottery pick in 2018.

Amateurism dead?

On Oct. 3, Jon Rothstein of the FanRag Sports Network posted UK Coach John Calipari’s thoughts on how to fix college basketball. Among the ideas was to allow players to earn income off their names, off their autographs and off their likenesses.

“If a uniform is sold with a player’s name on it, the player should get a percentage on it,” Calipari said. “If they want to go out and sign autographs, let them sign autographs.”

Presumably, the idea is to lessen the need to pay players under the table.

Among those who support Calipari is David Ridpath, the president of the reform-minded Drake Group.

“Amateurism itself really doesn’t exist,” Ridpath said, “and probably hasn’t since 1900.”

Canadian rapper Drake made another appearance at Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena. But he had a request this time: He wants to perform a free concert for UK students before the year ends.

Ridpath also liked Calipari’s suggestion that players be allowed to sign so-called shoe contracts. In other words, get paid by a shoe company to wear its brand.

“It’s unfair that coaches get all this money from signing a shoe contract,” Ridpath said, “and then the players are forced to wear those shoes.”

Ridpath parts company with Calipari on the UK coach’s suggestion that the payment of this revenue be deferred, presumably until after a player’s eligibility expires.

“We don’t defer for other college students,” Ridpath said. “If you’re marketable, and somebody wants to put you on TV and pay you, just like any other student, you should be allowed to do that.

“So I’m in agreement, and certainly the Drake Group is in full agreement on compensating players on their names, image and likeness. But it shouldn’t be restricted in any way. Let the market decide.”

Odd bedfellows?

It might seem odd that a reform organization like the Drake Group would support college players benefiting financially from their athletic skills.

But its president, David Ridpath, said the Drake Group is concerned with the time demands coaches place on players rather than whether the sport be played by amateurs.

In seeking to enhance the college experience, not just the athletic experience, the Drake Group has called for the abolishment of spring football, a reduction in mandatory summer activities and limiting sports to one semester (freeing up the other semester for non-sports activities).

“If they’re primarily students, then we need to free up a lot more time,” Ridpath said. “But also let them have the freedoms that other students have.”

Baseball model

In his comments for FanRag Sports Network, John Calipari echoed a familiar sentiment: College basketball should follow the example of college baseball. This would make unnecessary NCAA President Mark Emmert’s recommendation of radical change in the structure of basketball.

“Players should be allowed representation just like they have in baseball,” Calipari said. “They don’t need a new model because there’s already a model in place. That’s what they do in baseball.”

Late last week, UK Coach Nick Mingione explained the baseball model.

Players can use the help of advisers in deciding whether to turn pro out of high school or play in college. But the player cannot pay the adviser nor enter a contractual agreement.

The hoped-for result is the player making a better-informed decision.

Baseball players can turn pro out of high school. Players going to college commit to playing for three seasons. There’s an exception: A player can turn pro after turning 21 regardless of how many college seasons he’s played. For instance, UK sophomores T.J. Collett and Chris Machamer will be 21 before the next draft.

A player who enters junior college can turn pro after his first year.

Mingione cited statistics to bolster his argument that a four-year college program is the best option for many players. Of the 1,200 major league players this season, 75 percent were originally draft picks. Of those major league-bound draft picks, more than half had played at Division I schools.

And, Mingione added, less than 20 major-leaguers had been drafted out of high school in the first five rounds.

“Pretty powerful in recruiting,” Mingione said of his statistics. “Unless you’re a top-round pick, it’s really hard to make it to the big leagues.”

Baseball update

UK baseball will stage its Fall World Series next weekend. Captains will pick players for an intrasquad best two-of-three series planned for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

UK is coming off a season of firsts that included advancement to an NCAA super regional and six players chosen in the first 10 rounds of the Major League Baseball draft.

Experienced starting pitching gives Coach Nick Mingione hope for more success in 2018. UK returns its weekend starting pitching rotation: SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle, 6-foot-7 righty Justin Lewis and lefty Zack Thompson.

Wright choice

In case you missed it, Villanova Coach Jay Wright will receive the John R. Wooden Award’s “Legends of Coaching” honor next spring. The Wooden Award announced the choice last week.

Honorees are selected based on character, success on the court, graduation rate of players, coaching philosophy and how they identify with goals associated with the John R. Wooden Award.

Past winners include Tubby Smith (2016), Bill Self (2013), Billy Donovan (2010), Rick Barnes (2009), Roy Williams (2003), Denny Crum (2002) and Mike Krzyzewski (2000).

Pro daze

As with dependence on one-and-done players, Kentucky’s staging of a Pro Day for NBA scouts is a trend-setter.

Other Pro Days recently were staged by Louisville (Oct. 7), Alabama (Oct. 10) and Auburn (Oct. 11).

Duke plans another Pro Day in either late October or early November.

Happy birthday

To Matt Scherbenske. He turned 30 on Saturday. . . . To Todd Ziegler. He turns 52 on Monday. . . . To Tony Cooper. He turns 46 on Tuesday.

This summer, members of the New Orleans Pelicans worked out at UK and played pickup games against John Calipari’s freshmen. What was it like for Nick Richards to go up against DeMarcus Cousins?

At Kentucky Basketball Media Day on Thursday, head coach John Calipari and players bragged on freshman Kevin Knox.

UK basketball players Jarred Vanderbilt, Quade Green and Sacha Killeya-Jones talk about Vanderbilt's foot injury.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton