If you like rags-to-riches stories, Mississippi State forward Aric Holman is a player to watch and appreciate at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night.
Remember how Kentucky Coach John Calipari lauded the way Keldon Johnson came back from a scoreless game at Georgia? Holman did the same thing, only at a younger age and under more-pressured circumstances.
Holman missed all seven of his shots in a 2014 Kentucky State Tournament game. He also fouled out in 11 minutes of play. Owensboro High School lost to Trinity in the first round.
“Everybody thought, ‘this kid is a big old guy,’” Owensboro Coach Rod Drake recalled Monday. “‘I don’t know if he can play or not.’”
Drake said Holman worked hard to improve during the following summer.
“Going into his senior year, he got his name out there,” Drake said. “It was lights out from that point on.”
The happiest of endings came the following year as Holman led Owensboro to the state championship, the school’s first since 1980.
Kentucky had lukewarm interest in recruiting Holman. No hard feelings, he said at the Southeastern Conference Media Day in October. “It is what it is …,” he said. “I guess I didn’t fit that program.”
Louisville showed interest. Drake said he believed U of L decided to pass on Holman and sign Ray Spalding, who played for Trinity in that game Holman went scoreless.
Holman’s final list of college options had Texas, Xavier and Florida as well as Louisville.
A friendship with a more celebrated recruit, Malik Newman, led Holman to sign with Mississippi State, Drake said. Holman said he also liked how Kevin Love prospered playing for Ben Howland at UCLA.
Holman was not on the fast track to stardom. For one thing, he came to State weighing only 190 pounds. That might have made UK back off, Howland said. “They could do better.”
Now State lists his weight at 225 pounds. Holman credited “five or six” meals a day. He said he’d typically eat two omelets for breakfast, then two turkey burgers for lunch. For dinner, he’d eat “something heavy like steak with a lot of protein,” he said.
Holman would also snack on peanut butter sandwiches or bananas and milkshakes two or three times a day.
Holman’s three-point shooting has dramatically improved. As a freshman, he took only 13 three-pointers. He made two.
This season Holman’s 31 three-point baskets rank second on State’s team.
“Really a complete player,” Howland said earlier this month. “How many 6-10 guys can block shots and shoot threes? That’s why there’s interest in him from the next level.”
Going into last weekend, Holman ranked third among SEC players in blocks with an average of 2.4 per game. He’s also made 44.3 percent of his three-point shots (31 of 70).
“I think Mississippi State fits his game …,” said Drake, who sees Holman as a “stretch-four” at the NBA level. “I think he shoots the ball as well as any big guy in the country.”
UK Assistant Coach Tony Barbee said Holman’s shooting will challenge UK’s “bigs” to defend out on the floor rather than remain as rim protectors.
“He’s shooting the ball as good as anybody in our league: guard or ‘big’ or in between …,” Barbee said of Holman. “Gotten better. That’s what happens when you stay three or four years. You become better.”
UK freshman EJ Montgomery said he feels more comfortable now that he’s learning how his teammates play and how the college game is played.
“The college game is really fast,” he said. “I have to slow it down in my head, and not think too much. I think too much when the game is going up and down the court fast. In my mind, I start to think fast. I have to slow it down and just relax.”
Montgomery was scoreless and grabbed one rebound during the frenetic game at Auburn.
PJ Washington said he had counseled patience. He said Montgomery must be ready when his opportunities come.
“We know he’s skilled at everything,” Washington said. “He has to bring it more in practice. And he’s doing a great job of that.”
Karl Ravech, Dick Vitale and sideline reporter Laura Rutledge will call the game for ESPN. … UK listed Tony Delk as again substituting for Mike Pratt as analyst on the radio call. Pratt said it was a “game-day decision” if he would work the game.