Calipari talks about his starting five dilemma: ‘We’re still exploring’
Kentucky’s opponent in Friday’s exhibition game surely set a record for an early arrival. The Indiana University of Pennsylvania team came to Kentucky on Tuesday and beat Morehead State 91-84 in a scrimmage that evening.
With so much time to kill, and no need to rush home after Friday’s game, the IUP traveling party could have made arrangements to attend the monumental Kentucky-Georgia football game Saturday afternoon. But no.
“I would love to stay and watch the game,” IUP Coach Joe Lombardi said Monday. “But I’ve got to get back to work.”
For Lombardi, the Kentucky-Georgia football game would have the feel of a reunion. In college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he played for Youngstown State. It wasn’t unusual for him to play in pickup basketball games that involved the Stoops brothers, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. That’s Bob, Mike and future UK football coach Mark Stoops.
“If I remember right, they were a little wild on the court,” Lombardi said. “Let me say, they competed, OK? You know those football guys who think they can play basketball.”
When it was suggested that Mark Stoops’ lack of imposing height might make a sportswriter think that he could have posted up the future UK football coach 40 years ago, Lombardi said, “You might have posted him up, but you weren’t going to score on him. You might have had to call a foul four times in a row. That’s how they played. They were physical.”
But before Kentucky’s football team plays Georgia, the UK basketball team has its own challenge. IUP is something of an NCAA Division II dynasty. The school has won the Western Division of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference eight of the last nine years. In that time, IUP twice advanced to the Division II national championship game.
More of the same is expected this coming season. The Crimson Hawks, whose three returning senior starters include two 1,000-point scorers, received all but one of the nine first-place votes in a preseason coaches’ poll going into 2018-19.
With an enrollment of about 12,000 and an arena that has 4,000 chair-back seats, private suites and a Jumbotron, IUP thinks big.
“We think of ourselves as a low Division I program,” Lombardi said.
An engaging conversationalist Monday even though much of a seven-hour bus trip to Kentucky laid ahead, Lombardi acknowledged a difference between the tradition of success enjoyed by IUP and UK.
“The difference is most of my guys will be newspaper writers or accountants when college is over,” he said, “while those guys (on the UK team) are being paid professionals.”
Kentucky players are “a little bit” quicker, longer and bigger, Lombardi said before adding, “I don’t know how much difference there is in skill. In high Division II, we have a lot of really skilled players. Skilled big guys. Skilled guards. But it’s the athleticism that is a different level.”
One of IUP’s 1,000-point scorers is Jacobo (pronunciation three rhyming syllables: Hoe-KOE-boe) Diaz, a 6-foot-9 native of the Canary Islands and a preseason All-American.
“At that level, he’s a mismatch for everybody who guards him,” said Dominic Lombardi, the son of the coach, a former IUP player and now an assistant coach at Morehead State. He got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant on UK Coach John Calipari’s staff.
A younger brother, Dante’ Lombardi, is IUP’s point guard and the other 1,000-point scorer.
The third returning starter is Willem Brandwijk, a 6-8 native of The Netherlands.
Lombardi, who has known Calipari since the UK coach began his head coaching career at UMass 30 years ago, is no stranger to taking on Division I powerhouses. He recalled playing No. 2 Michigan State in a 2013 preseason game.
“A friend of mine goes to Michigan State practice all the time,” Lombardi said. “He said, ‘I can’t believe how (Tom) Izzo prepared for you. I thought they were playing Indiana. He never does that before exhibition games.’”
Michigan State played No. 1 Kentucky in Chicago eight days after playing IUP.
“So he was trying to create an edge,” Lombardi said of Izzo. “Jeez, man, those guys thought we were Kentucky that day.”
Michigan State beat IUP 83-45.
Of course, this year IUP serves as a final dress rehearsal before No. 2 Kentucky opens the season against No. 4 Duke in Indianapolis on Tuesday.
Kentucky being on edge can impact the competitiveness of Friday’s exhibition. Lombardi recalled his IUP team leading 27-12 at Syracuse two years ago. Ultimately, Syracuse won 83-65.
“When we got up at Syracuse, I got the fact their kids weren’t ready to play that night,” Lombardi said. “(Calipari) is going to make us sound like we’re the ’85 Knicks. I know how this works.”
Indiana-Pennsylvania at Kentucky
What: UK’s final preseason exhibition game
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network