During a wide-ranging group interview session last summer, John Calipari repeatedly mentioned one of his former Kentucky players as a reason for his optimism about the 2018-19 season. Even at that early stage, the current Cats already reflected that player’s love of basketball, eagerness to improve and competitive spirit.
That player was ... Brandon Knight.
“The biggest thing about this team is the Brandon Knight culture ...,” Calipari said. “They just love the game. They love getting better. They love competing. That’s fun for them. Not running around and ‘Can’t wait till this is over.’ ...
“The teams I’ve had that way, normally they’re reaching beyond what you think they should be able to do.”
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Knight’s one-and-done season for Kentucky was 2010-11. He led UK in scoring (17.3 points per game), three-point shooting (37.7 percent) and assists (4.2 per game). More importantly, Calipari said Knight set a tone. Oh yeah, he also led Kentucky to the 2011 Final Four.
“I always said Brandon Knight changed the direction of what we wanted and how we wanted it done,” Calipari said. “And he took it to another level.”
As opposed to a more laissez-faire approach. “You get a group (where) either the game was easy for them” or “they are enabled,” Calipari said.
When told of Calipari’s comments, Knight expressed appreciation.
“It means a lot,” he told Jonathan Feigen, who covers the Rockets for the Houston Chronicle, “coming from Cal, a great mentor for me and someone that really pushed me along the way. (Calipari was) a big part of my growth in college and even here in the NBA. He was a big part of being where I am today.”
Knight recalled trying to push his UK teammates. “Whether it be in the weight room, on the court, no matter the situation,” he said. “I’m going to try to make guys better. I try to give 120 percent so other guys will do the same.”
Ashton Hagans, who has emerged as UK’s point guard and tone-setter this season, said Calipari has mentioned Knight to him as a player who impacted games offensively and defensively. He had not watched Knight play, Hagans said, but he had an idea of how Knight impacted Kentucky basketball.
Tyler Herro, another UK player who has gained a reputation for spending extra hours in the gym, was more familiar with Knight.
“He played for the Milwaukee Bucks a little bit, so I watched him when I was at home,” said Herro, who is from Milwaukee. “He’s a great player. ... It’s good to have guys like that around the program.”
Assistant coach Joel Justus said on Friday that what Calipari saw in the preseason has endured. “The guys love basketball,” he said. “They like to watch basketball on TV. They watch themselves. They watch other players.”
This love of basketball and desire to improve breeds confidence, Justus said.
“Our guys are supremely confident,” he said, “because they’ve put the time in.”
Because it’s apparently never too early to speculate about the NBA Draft (and recruiting and the next presidential election), here’s a look at where recent mock drafts have projected UK players:
Keldon Johnson was at No. 12 (SI.com), No. 4 (NBADraft.net) and No. 8 (Basketball Insiders).
“Johnson has always been a player whose value lies in his floor more than his ceiling. ...,” SI.com wrote. “Somewhat mature physically and is not extremely explosive or wiggly off the bounce, which points to a more limited ceiling than some of the players ahead of him ... But there’s a lot to like about his game, particularly given the demand for wings who play both ends of the floor. He should present bankable value in this range of the draft.”
PJ Washington was at No. 22 (SI.com), No. 48 (NBADraft.net) and not included in Basketball Insiders’ first round.
“Does a lot of things effectively enough to succeed as a small-ball ‘big’ at the next level,” SI.com wrote. “His rebounding, passing and defensive positioning enable him to impact games even when he’s not scoring. And his overall motor has been much better. ... His mobility, athleticism and versatility on both sides of the ball give him a chance to impact winning at the NBA level as a low-usage role player.”
Tyler Herro was at No. 34 (SI.com).
“Herro has begun to pick up his play and his confidence has soared in recent weeks,” SI.com wrote. “He might be the Wildcats’ most talented player. ... His body type doesn’t have much appeal from an NBA standpoint. ... Teams are generally willing to take fliers on shooters, and he might be one of the best ones in this class.”
Ashton Hagans was at No. 35 (NBADraft.net).
Going into this weekend, Duke freshman Tre Jones had 83 assists and 14 turnovers on the season. That’s an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.9-to-1.
Tennessee led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. The Vols had two players ranked in the top 30 nationally. Jordan Bone was 20th with 88 assists and 25 turnovers (3.5-to-1) and Jordan Bowden had 40 assists and 14 turnovers (2.9-to-1).
Strength of schedules
CBS Sports compiled a ranking of strength of non-conference schedules. Kansas ranked as the nation’s toughest non-conference schedule, and the Jayhawks still must play at Kentucky on Jan. 26.
The next four toughest non-conference schedules were Oklahoma at No. 2, then Nevada, Duke and Tennessee.
CBS Sports ranked Kentucky’s non-conference schedule as the 36th toughest in the country and fifth toughest among SEC teams.
Bob Burrow remembered
Bob Burrow, who died at age 84 on Jan. 3, was an All-SEC player in each of his two seasons for Kentucky. He rarely spoke about his basketball success at UK: 1,023 points, 823 rebounds. His seasonal rebound averages of 17.7 and 14.6 rank first and fourth in program history.
One of his sons, Grant Burrow, recalled a familiar story his father liked to tell.
“He knew he was going to work as hard as possible to be a success for his family and Adolph Rupp,” Grant Burrow said. Then one day, “Rupp pulled him to half court and said ‘Burrow, I had a juco player before, and he did not work out at all. If you don’t work out, I am never looking at another juco player ever again.’”
Bob Burrow worked out.
Grant Burrow, who gave an eulogy at the funeral service, said his father and mother, LeeAnn, made their home a gathering place for neighborhood kids. Besides building an outdoor basketball court, room was made for Ping-Pong and card games.
Burrow, who was born in Malvern, Ark., came to Kentucky from Lon Morris (Texas) Junior College. He played for UK in the 1954-55 and 1955-56 seasons.
He wore No. 50. So did his older son, Brett Burrow, as a player for Vanderbilt. So did Brett’s son, Reed, for his Brentwood High School team and Grant’s daughter, Brooklin, for the Middle Tennessee Elite travel team. She is an eighth-grader.
Grant did not wear No. 50. Why? Because he was a guard, “and 50 just didn’t go with a lot of guards!!!” he wrote in an email.
Bob and LeeAnn attended games that included their two sons and four grandchildren.
“Unless there was a big UK basketball game,” Grant said in the eulogy. “They then may travel ... to go see the Cats play and chant C-A-T-S. They loved traveling to Lexington and many other places to be part of the Blue Mist and see the Cats play.”
Big Blue Slam
The 11th annual Big Blue Slam will be Monday through Friday of this coming week. The event is a competition between Kentucky and Florida to see which state can donate the most blood.
Donations can be made at Kentucky Blood Center locations in Lexington, Louisville, Pikeville and Somerset. Those sites will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. Donors must be 17 years old (16 years old with parental consent), weigh at least 110 pounds and be in general good health.
Those interested in setting up a donation can go to kybloodcenter.org or call 1-800-775-2522.
The series is tied at 5-5.
To former Georgia Coach Mark Fox. He turns 50 on Sunday (today). ... To Shagari Alleyne. He turns 35 on Monday. ... To Mike Scott. He turns 52 on Monday. ... To Jay Shidler. He turns 61 on Tuesday. ... To Richard Madison. He turns 54 on Wednesday.