Hamidou Diallo was a two-time all-state high school player in New York. He played for the gold medal-winning USA team in the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. He played for the New York Rens in the Nike-sponsored EYBL.
With that load of accomplishment on his résumé, it sounded odd Tuesday to hear him say, “Now, I’m just trying to learn the game of basketball.”
To be more precise, Diallo is re-learning how to play basketball this season. He previously played at a fast tempo, which perfectly suited his undeniable athleticism. But UK opponents this season, as in previous seasons, try to force a slower pace of play.
“I feel we’ve played a lot of half-court this year,” Diallo said. “So I feel like it’s just something I’m trying to get much better at. And coming in here, I was just an up-and-down type of player.”
Diallo expressed gratitude for how the UK coaches are trying to help him become a better player in a half-court setting. A part of that process will sound familiar to UK fans: Learn to make the easier play rather than a more theatrical maneuver. That adjustment, plus new teammates are part of Diallo’s re-education process.
“It’s just a different level of basketball, and a different team and different system,” he said. “And (opponents) are much better at this level. It’s something you’re going to have to read, and slow it down at times. It’s just different reads in the game I’m still trying to learn, still trying to get better at, and Coach (John Calipari) is trying to help me simplify the game and see the game at different angles and from different spots on the floor.”
Kentucky’s game at Auburn on Wednesday night might be a temporary release from Diallo’s re-education camp. In Southeastern Conference play, Auburn leads the league in scoring (84.1 ppg), three-point shooting accuracy (40.6 percent) and three-point baskets (10.4 per game).
When asked if this suggested a fast-paced game, Diallo said, “Hopefully. I feel we play better like that. Hopefully that’s the type of game it is.
“Many teams try to make it a half-court game with us. … That’s how they know they have a better chance at beating us. We’re just going to have to get better at playing half-court, and get better at forcing the game to be up and down.”
Tooting Gabriel’s horn
On his radio show Monday, Calipari spoke of UK getting a greater impact from Wenyen Gabriel.
“The guy that’s playing the hardest and needs way more minutes is Wenyen,” the UK coach said.
Associate coach Kenny Payne echoed that sentiment Tuesday. Both said that UK should get more shots for Gabriel.
“Here’s a kid who can make jump shots for us,” Payne said. “We desperately need shooting. He can do that.”
In the last 10 games, Gabriel has made 18 of 49 shots (36.7 percent) and five of 26 three-point shots (19.2 percent).
Brown to play?
In winning at Georgia on Saturday, Auburn played without leading scorer Bryce Brown. He injured a shoulder against Texas A&M last week.
On Monday, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl was coy about Brown’s availability to play against Kentucky.
“I think Bryce Brown is going to try to go today, but no contact,” Pearl said of Monday’s practice. “He’s shooting a little bit, he’s moving a little bit, so he has a better chance to play on Wednesday than he did on Saturday.”
Brown did end up being able to practice, and Auburn listed him as “probable” to play against the Cats.
When UK last played at Auburn two seasons ago, assistant coach Tony Barbee did not make the trip. Of course, Barbee formerly coached at Auburn, where his four-season record was 49-75.
Auburn fans seemed ready to jeer Barbee that night. This time Pearl has asked Auburn fans to be kind.
“I would like to reach out to all of our fans and students in preparation of that,” he said of Barbee’s return. “I know what it’s like. In coaching, for better or for worse, you give it your heart and soul. … I think it would only be fitting with Auburn to be classy. He was our basketball coach for four years. He moved his family here and he was a part of this family. I would rather it be us welcoming him and his family back. … There should be nothing else.”
▪ Auburn has a 12-1 record at home this season. Counting Texas A&M last weekend, UK’s final four “true” road games this season are against teams that had a combined home record of 47-8 (.855 winning percentage) going into this week’s play. UK also plays at Arkansas (Feb. 20) and at Florida (March 3).
▪ Adam Amin, Dan Dakich, P.J. Carlesimo and sideline reporter Laura Rutledge will call the game for ESPN2.