UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky’s Gabriel thwarts opponents, analytics freaks with hard-to-quantify contributions

Wenyen Gabriel is averaging 6.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots per game for Kentucky this season.
Wenyen Gabriel is averaging 6.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots per game for Kentucky this season. AP

With apologies to devotees of analytics, Wenyen Gabriel finds mere numbers inadequate in determining his on-court contributions for Kentucky.

“A lot of what I do is not on the box score …,” Gabriel said Monday. “I just play the game. I’m not thinking of numbers when I’m playing.”

Associate Coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for John Calipari at the regular day-before-the-game news conference, said the UK basketball brain trust is well aware of Gabriel’s contributions. He called Gabriel UK’s “energy guy” and its “tough guy” and “rebounding guy.”

Recalling a conversation at a coaching staff meeting earlier Monday, Payne said of Gabriel, “His energy, his effort and what he gives us on the floor, just the fight of it is just an example of what we need every player to do.”

Gabriel said he showed a similar style of play last season. Greater opportunity has made his contributions visible to the naked eye, if not to those scanning box scores. “I have more of a role this year,” he said.

That role includes being a team leader as a graybeard sophomore. He said UK’s team was “awfully really, really young.”

Kentucky sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones knows what his team has to do to beat a physical team at South Carolina.

Thinking too much

Payne linked Nick Richards’ recent struggles to a “pivotal mistake” — presumably pun not intended — that many young players make.

“They begin to think too much,” Payne said. “They begin to have self doubt …

“This is an instinctive game. You have to play off your instincts.”

Richards must be a shot blocker, a setter of good screens, a defender of multiple positions and a player who rebounds above the rim.

“In order to do that, you have to be the aggressor,” Payne said. “You have to be the guy that makes first contact.”

Kentucky basketball assistant coach Kenny Payne talks about Tuesday’s game at South Carolina.

‘Tough dude’

The regular question about Jarred Vanderbilt led to the regular response: No definitive expectation of when the freshman might play.

Payne said Vanderbilt had displayed “unbelievable” speed and “exceptional” ball-handling in practices.

“He is literally like a point-forward …,” Payne said. “He’s going to add a dimension to this team that’s going to enhance what we do when he’s ready to play.”

The big question is: when will that be?

Payne said that had not been determined.

Vanderbilt was enduring “some aches and pains” in his return to practice, and also needed to clear a mental hurdle after having not played in a game for nearly a year.

Earlier, Calipari had said he preferred that Vanderbilt play his first game in Rupp Arena. Payne suggested Vanderbilt would be fine with debuting in an away game.

“He says, ‘I’m a goon,’” Payne said, “which means, ‘I’m a tough dude. I’m a fighter. I’m a warrior. And it doesn’t matter to me where I start at.’”

On Tuesday, Kentucky basketball travels to South Carolina where John Calipari has been ejected twice as UK coach.

U of L coach?

When asked about speculation that he could be Louisville’s next coach, Payne said he had aspirations to be a head coach.

“Of course,” he said. “Definitely. But I have a great job. I’m not in a rush. I’m not going to take a bad job.”

As Calipari did earlier, Payne saluted the job being done by U of L interim coach David Padgett.

“There are veteran coaches who can’t do what he’s doing,” Payne said of Padgett uniting the U of L players in a time of trying circumstances.

Point guards

Quade Green had not practiced since a bad strain sidelined him more than a week ago. Green missed last week’s games against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

But UK has not suffered. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander filled in well enough to be named the SEC’s Freshman of the Week.

“The kid’s been unbelievable,” Payne said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “He’s been great. He’s been our best player by far.”

Upon further review

On the last play of UK’s one-point victory over Texas A&M last week, replays showed Gabriel draping an arm across the chest of Tyler Davis. SEC Network studio hosts suggested a foul went uncalled.

“I looked at the video after,” Gabriel said. “It definitely looked like I fouled him. … I guess he (the referee) missed one.”

Off a high

South Carolina won 64-57 at Georgia on Saturday despite making only 27.1 percent of its shots.

“We played like a good basketball team …,” Coach Frank Martin said. “Our best road game of the year. … as connected as we’ve played in a while. … maybe our most complete game.”

Bowen practices

Former Louisville signee Brian Bowen, the five-star prospect embroiled in the FBI investigation of college basketball, transferred to South Carolina and started practicing within the last few days.

Martin said South Carolina is working with the NCAA to determine if and when Bowen can play.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we’re confident they will (allow Bowen to play),” Martin said. “But (the decision) will eventually come. Then we’ll worry about playing.”

Bowen, a 6-7 wing, is a five-star prospect ranked No. 19 in the class of 2017 by 247 Sports. He has made a good first impression on Martin.

“I’ve been around him two days in practice,” Martin said. “The talent is real good. The ability is real good. He can shoot it, pass it, dribble it. Very good player.”

Etc.

To borrow from Payne’s pun, big man Chris Silva might be South Carolina’s pivotal player. After Silva scored a career-high 27 against Vandy, Bryce Drew said, “When Silva’s on the court, they are a completely different team. He was clearly the best player out there.” … Joe Tessitore, Sean Farnham and sideline reporter Laura Rutledge will call the game for ESPN.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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