Kentucky Coach John Calipari has made no secret of wishing the 2019-20 team had more big men. He went beyond wishing when he tried unsuccessfully to convince transfer Kerry Blackshear and freshman N’Faly Dante to come to UK. They instead went to Florida and Oregon, respectively.
Were UK’s three-man rotation of “bigs” taken aback? Not judging by responses at the Kentucky basketball team’s media day Tuesday.
“If he was recruiting more (big men), I guess we needed them,” EJ Montgomery said. “Because he knows the plan. But he didn’t get them, so we have to step up and play more roles.”
Nick Richards said Calipari was trying to guard against foul trouble. The UK coach acknowledged that foul trouble and injury factored in his attempt to add big men.
The third UK “big,” graduate transfer Nate Sestina, said he was not troubled by the perceived need for additional front line players.
“If he wants to win, and that’s going to help us win, that’s fine,” he said.
Of course, Richards has dealt with foul trouble at times in his first two UK seasons. Calipari linked last season’s foul trouble on the habit created in physical practices against PJ Washington and Reid Travis.
“Obviously, the expectation is: this is his time,” Calipari said of Richards. “He played against two moose last year. … Can you hold your ground? Can you sustain your confidence in that kind of situation? Until we start playing games, who will know? Now, my hope is he’s ready for it.”
During the offseason, Calipari signed a so-called lifetime contract. He made light of the implication of a guaranteed spot at the helm of UK basketball.
“There’s no such thing as a lifetime contract …,” he said.. “They could fire me in a year, and that was my lifetime right there.”
When asked what questions he had about the team at this stage, Calipari said, “Are we going to be physical enough?”
Kentucky should have “unbelievable” defense on the ball and be capable of protecting the rim, he said.
“Now, if you get roughed up, can you still play?” he said. “Can you still perform? Do we have the physical (and) mental toughness?”
‘A bit thin’
UK fans looking for reasons to fret can cite the fact that there are only nine healthy players (plus Dontaie Allen) at this early stage.
“We’re a little light” in numbers, Calipari said. “But some of the best teams I’ve coached weren’t full rosters.”
Johnny Juzang said his mother is Vietnamese. That makes him perhaps the first UK player of Asian ancestry.
Juzang, whose father’s ancestry is Creole, said he was just beginning to realize the impact he can make on young people.
“I’m starting to realize it for sure,” he said. “There’s not many, like, Asian players. It’s definitely an amazing opportunity to be an inspiration.”
When asked, Calipari downplayed Juzang’s ancestry.
“I had the first Latin backcourt in the history of the NCAA that went to a Final Four,” he said of the 1996 combo of Puerto Ricans Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla. “What did it mean? It was great in Puerto Rico and the Dominican and all those things. I would say there’s going to be people across the country where their children are going to look up to Johnny Juzang. I believe that.
“But he’s here because he can really play basketball, and he’s a great kid and a great teammate.”
To put it mildly, Sestina has made a winning impression on Immanuel Quickley.
“I would say that Nate is the best teammate I’ve ever played with,” Quickly said, “and I’ve been on a lot of good teams, been on USA Basketball. …
“On the court, he’s always talking. Off the court, he’s always talking. He made me breakfast one time. He’s taken me out to lunch.”
Sestina made Quickly breakfast?
“He made me shrimp and broccoli …,” Quickley said. “I ended up eating it around 11:30, so it was my breakfast.”
When asked about UK fans being upset that there’s been no advancement to a Final Four since 2015, Calipari said he does not dwell on such sentiments.
“Look, our fans are crazy, and I love them,” he said. “But, please. Don’t take this wrong. I don’t listen to them.”
If a UK coach listens to fans, “you’ll be under the desk in a fetal position,” Calipari said.
Take my wife …
Ellen Calipari asked questions of players. It was part of a video for BBN TV and for use on social media, UK said.
At his news conference, Calipari used his wife as a comic foil. He said when he was UMass coach, Ellen shoveled snow off the driveway at their home.
“And we had gravel,” he said. “So I blacktopped it so that she could shovel easier.”
When reporters’ laughter subsided, Calipari added, “You have to think of your wife.”
Herald-Leader sportswriter Ben Roberts contributed to this story.