A knee injury sidelined Jemarl Baker for all of last season. He hadn’t played this season until getting in for one minute against Seton Hall last weekend.
It might have been easy to forget Baker was even on Kentucky’s team. Even UK Coach John Calipari was not immune to overlooking the redshirt freshman.
Baker did not get in Kentucky’s 88-61 victory over Utah on Saturday until only 2:22 remained in the second half.
“I would have put him in earlier except I forgot he was on the bench,” Calipari said.
Baker, the player expected to help fill the gap created by Quade Green’s transfer, made the final two of UK’s 12 three-pointers. He hit threes with 66 and 39.9 seconds left.
“He’s practiced really well the last couple weeks,” Calipari said. “And what I’ve told him is, ‘You’re in the game to score baskets. ... And he went in the game and he scored baskets and our fans went crazy. And I’m happy for him.”
Baker’s baskets did not surprise Keldon Johnson.
“We’re excited for him ...,” Johnson said. “We practice with him every day. We know what Jemarl can do.”
Of Baker’s two baskets, Johnson said, “I knew when he shot the ball, I was like, that’s good. Because he shot it with confidence.”
‘Love that guy’
As Kentucky recognized and remembered its 1993 Final Four team Saturday, one persona hung in the air in Rupp Arena like a ghost of basketball past.
Rick Pitino, who guided UK to that Final Four in that fourth year of an unexpected quick and vibrant rebuilding project, did not attend the reunion. Of course, a series of embarrassing problems as Louisville coach led to Pitino’s dismissal there in 2017.
Three of his former players who participated in a news conference prior to UK’s game against Utah, remembered Pitino fondly.
“Nothing negative to say about Coach,” said Dale Brown, a guard on the 1993 team. “I love that guy. He prepared me for life.”
Saying he believed Pitino would work out the problems that ended his time as U of L coach, Brown added, “Great guy, man. He did great things for us. He’ll always have a special place in our hearts.”
Jared Prickett said he found the stories of strippers helping Pitino’s Louisville program in recruiting foreign to his experience at UK.
“I look at that situation ... and the way Coach communicated with us,” he said. “How he was strict with us. ... not allowing anything of that nature.”
Pitino was invited to attend the reunion. He declined through a tweet Saturday morning that suggested he appreciated the invitation and remembered that team fondly.
Gimel Martinez, Prickett and Brown marveled at the passage of time. Brown said video of games that season seem blurry.
That 1992-93 season ended in a loss to Michigan’s Fab Five in the Final Four semifinals. Prickett recalled how Brown injured a shoulder while diving for a loose ball and how star forward Jamal Mashburn fouled out.
“We could have won the game,” Prickett said. “We should have won the game.”
Tough schedule I
Through games on Thursday, Kentucky had an NCAA Evaluation Tool rating of No. 39. Utah was at No. 138. Of teams on UK’s remaining schedule, only South Carolina (No. 224) had a worse NET.
UK’s final 21 games are against teams that had an average collective NET of 63.4. SEC teams had a collective NET of 74.7.
Tough schedule II
Utah plays No. 7 Nevada in two weeks. Although having to replace four starters from a NIT team last season, Coach Larry Krystkowiak scheduled two Big Ten teams in November. The Utes lost at Minnesota and against Northwestern.
When asked to explain the challenging schedule, Krystkowiak said, “It’s pretty obvious. We all want to play in the NCAA Tournament. If you don’t play games of this magnitude and put yourself in that position, you don’t really have a chance when these discussions come around in March.”
Preparing his team for Pac-12 play is another reason to play a challenging schedule that included a game at Kentucky, Krystkowiak said.
“It’s as good an environment as anywhere in the country,” he said of Rupp Arena. “And when you make that trip to Arizona, it’s not like an out-of-body experience.”