With one attention-getting caveat, Kentucky Coach John Calipari spoke optimistically about the 2019-20 season.
“We got good guards,” he told a group of reporters at a preseason round table. “We got good big men.”
Then came the caveat. “I wish we had more big men,” Calipari said, “because you never know how things go.”
Foul trouble. Injury. Distracted by adversity on or off the court. Any or all could greatly impact a Kentucky team with three what-do-we-have-here big men: Junior Nick Richards (who has yet to blossom), sophomore EJ Montgomery (who NBA people say needs to find an identity as a player) and graduate transfer Nate Sestina (second-team All-Patriot League for Bucknell in his one season as a starter).
Calipari acknowledged trying to add another big man during the offseason. “Yeah, I thought it was important,” the UK coach said. Kentucky pursued Kerry Blackshear, who ultimately transferred from Virginia Tech to Florida. UK also recruited N’Faly Dante, a five-star prospect who signed with Oregon.
Calipari said he is comfortable with the option of Kentucky using a relatively unimposing front line at times this coming season.
“Keion can be a four-man at his size and length,” he said of freshman Keion Brooks Jr., who is 6-foot-7. “And even Kahlil could be a stretch-four because physically he’s that guy that can fight and guard and do that stuff.” UK lists freshman Kahlil Whitney’s height as 6-6.
Rather than dwell on what Kentucky might lack in depth among its “bigs,” Calipari stressed how this roster can benefit the trio of front-line players.
“This is an opportunity for Nick and EJ and Nate,” he said.
This figures to be especially appealing to Richards. In 12 games last season, he played nine or fewer minutes. He played only 44 seconds in UK’s season-ending overtime loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight. Two nights earlier against Houston in the Sweet 16 round, Richards played four minutes and three seconds. And two of UK’s big men — PJ Washington and Reid Travis — were hindered in those games by foot and knee injuries, respectively.
“It’s not about ‘he takes me out every time I make a mistake,’” Calipari said of the quick hook he’s used with Richards at times. “It doesn’t happen here. But it’s a great cop out. You’re afraid to play, not because of me. Because this is big here (at) Kentucky. Every game is a Super Bowl. The other team is so excited, and you’re like, ‘Why are they so excited?’ This stuff is hard.
“It takes some guys longer. It has taken Nick some time based on that he started playing when he was 14. But you’ve seen the impact he can have on games. Now, can we get him to be consistent? Here’s the good news: He’s going to have every minute he needs to be consistent.”
Calipari said he’s also been working to boost Richards’ confidence. The UK coach said he had been stressing the importance of making the plays he can make (jump hooks from the post area) and avoiding plays that have a higher degree of difficulty (passes after spinning in the lane, shooting a 12-foot floater).
“Nick has more confidence,” Calipari said, “and I’m stopping him when he’s doing things that will take away his confidence. ‘Just do this, and then if you miss that, you’re going to be fine.’”
As Calipari told it, Montgomery has undergone a physical transformation. Having to adapt to the more physical play on the college level marked Montgomery’s freshman season.
“EJ’s body doesn’t even look the same,” Calipari said. “He’s trying to be more physical.” Calipari called Montgomery a “genius” in terms of basketball knowledge. Montgomery also had a bouncy athleticism, the UK coach said.
Montgomery needed to develop more consistency as a player, Calipari said, and, of course, become a more physical presence.
“He has to physically mature,” Calipari said. “I can’t do that for him. And it’s not just weight training. Physical maturing, it’s God’s time, not ours in most cases. You can push it, but it is what it is.”
Sestina has made a winning first impression on Calipari.
“Nate’s better than I thought he was,” Calipari said. “He talks. You can tell he’s played. He’s (a) veteran.”
Sestina, the shortest of the three “bigs” at 6-9, does not have the defensive presence/rim protection that Richards and Montgomery possess, Calipari said. But Sestina has toughness and willingness to rebound in traffic.
More than once, Calipari returned to Sestina’s habit of communicating to teammates on the court.
“He makes the game so much easier for the other guys because he talks,” Calipari said. “I showed a tape to them of an NBA player talking in a practice. The guy was saying, ‘Let’s over-talk. Talk more. It doesn’t matter what you say. Just talk more.’
“I looked around the room and said, ‘We’ve got two or three guys in here who don’t feel it’s your responsibility to talk because you’ve always been into your own thing. . . . OK, take this down. Y-M-C-A. Because that’s where you’re going to be playing. You ain’t playing in the NBA if you don’t talk.’”
This was routine instruction/advice for freshmen, Calipari said.
Of course, there are no freshmen among the three “bigs.” Perhaps that’s one reason Calipari said Kentucky would be comfortable competing with a rotation involving Richards, Montgomery and Sestina.
“Would you like to have one more? Fine,” Calipari said. “But those three, compare them to other front courts in the nation right now. Somebody is way better? Who? If they were that good, they wouldn’t be in college. With injuries (and) foul trouble, we don’t have a whole lot of room for error. But we can play small.”
Important upcoming dates
Sept. 25: Big Blue Madness campout begins
Sept. 27: Big Blue Madness ticket distribution
Oct. 1: Media Day
Oct. 6: Pro Day
Oct. 11: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 16: SEC Media Day
Oct. 18: Blue-White Scrimmage
Oct. 27: Exhibition opener vs. Georgetown College
Nov. 1: Exhibition vs. Kentucky State
Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Michigan State