UK Men's Basketball

Season will tell if ‘way better’ is good enough for Kentucky’s ‘bigs’

Leftovers from the Southeastern Conference Basketball Media Days:

A Kentucky player was on the preseason watch list for four of the five positional awards given by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The exception was center, which is the position that has generated the most uneasiness this preseason.

Does UK have enough big men? With Nate Sestina seemingly a stretch-four shooter, can EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards give UK an imposing presence around the basket?

Friday’s announcement that Ben Jordan, a 6-foot-9 right-hander on UK’s baseball team, would be joining the basketball team also suggested the answer was in doubt.

UK Coach John Calipari spoke optimistically. Montgomery and Richards had “both come back way better physically and (with) a better mindset.”

Of Montgomery, Calipari said, “We’re going to ask a lot of him. We need baskets. We need tip-ins. We need him to be active.”

Playing behind two “beasts” in (PJ Washington and Reid Travis) limited Montgomery’s role in games last season, Calipari said.

As for Richards, whose confidence seemingly wavered the last two seasons, Calipari suggested the junior from Jamaica is passing the eye test in workouts.

“To be really good at this game, you have to have a still mind …,” the UK coach said. “He’s, like, running out ahead and has a smile on his face.”

‘Big-time deal’

Ashton Hagans called being voted to the media’s preseason all-SEC first team “a big-time deal.” He suggested that the award was a tip-off to his effort to continue improving rather than a final buzzer.

Hagans also received votes for SEC Player of the Year. “That’s the plan,” he said. “I’m going to keep grinding and do whatever I can to help this team.”

Player of the year

The media voted Kerry Blackshear of Florida as the preseason Player of the Year. Of course, he is a transfer player from Virginia Tech. He was a recruiting target of UK’s.

Blackshear, an all-ACC player last season, spoke of the vote as validation of the help he has received from family, coaches and mentors.

Florida Coach Mike White did not seem concerned that the preseason award might dull Blackshear’s competitiveness.

“I would say he’s as mature a kid as I’ve coached to this point,” White said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he wasn’t the least bit concerned about any of the preseason stuff. He’s concerned about winning and getting better.”

Not just UK

In the Big Blue Nation, it can seem that Kentucky basketball consumes everyone everywhere. In his Big Blue Madness address, John Calipari spoke of “millions around the country and the world” paying attention to UK.

But when asked about Calipari’s freshmen for this season, Florida Coach Mike White said, “I can’t comment on his freshmen. You’d have to name them for me. I’m so locked in (on Florida).”

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes echoed the sentiment when he responded to the same question by saying, “I don’t know much about any guy besides mine.”

Billy G update

Texas A&M’s first-year coach, Buzz Williams, worked as an assistant on Billy Gillispie’s staff at the school from 2004 to 2006. He offered an update on the former UK coach, who underwent a kidney transplant in 2018.

“I think he’s feeling a lot better,” Williams said. “He, for sure, looks a lot better.”

Gillispie lives “more comfortably” since the transplant, Williams said.

Still coaching, Gillispie guided Ranger College to the national junior college championship game earlier this year. Ranger is Texas-based two-year community college.

“If you don’t know anything about Ranger, it’s beyond remarkable that they played in a national championship game,” Williams said. “Beyond remarkable.”

When asked about how Gillispie looks back on his two seasons as Kentucky coach (2007-08 and 2008-09), Williams said, “I talked to him when he was at Kentucky. But, you know, coach is not big on talking about what’s happened in the past. He’s always going to the next thing.”

What? Me worry?

An Auburn player and LSU coach sounded unconcerned about the perceived NCAA clouds hanging over their programs.

“I hear about it sometimes … I don’t know any specifics,” Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore said. “I let it go in one ear and out the other.”

LSU Coach Will Wade acknowledged his name being mentioned in an FBI investigation of college basketball made for “a difficult time.” But he voiced confidence in how LSU might be affected.

“We are very comfortable and confident in how we’ve run our program,” he said.

‘We’ll take it’

Going into this coming season, LSU has won nine straight “true” road games. That ties Houston, Wofford and North Carolina for the longest such active streak in the nation.

Of course, LSU only won at Kentucky on Feb. 12 because the referees failed to call basket interference on Kavell Bigby-Williams’ game-winning tip-in in the final second. The rules prohibited a review of a judgment call (or non-call) on basket interference or goaltending.

When asked about that victory, LSU Coach Will Wade smiled and said, “They got the rule changed because of that.”

Subsequently, the NCAA approved allowing referees to review basket interference or goaltending in the final two minutes of the second half or any overtime period going forward.

“We certainly were the beneficiary last year,” Wade said of the non-review. “We’ll take it.”

Mother …

Torri Lewis, a guard on the Ole Miss women’s team, must balance college basketball, classwork and being a mother.

During Thursday’s session of the SEC Basketball Media Days, she said her son, Austrian Jay, had turned 13 months old that day.

“It’s been really tough,” she said of the many roles she plays.

She said her parents live about an hour away from Oxford in Olive Branch, Miss. Her mother takes care of Austrian Jay during the week. “We meet about halfway” to make the exchange. Lewis has her son on weekends.

“I’m so thankful I got to see him take his first steps,” she said.

and player

A redshirt senior, Torri Lewis defines shooting guard on the basketball court.

Ole Miss Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said of Lewis, “When she wakes up, she has the green light.”

Lewis said that there’s a downside to having an unblinking green light.

“It feels amazing,” she said. “But it does come with a lot of pressure. You have to maintain that green light.”

Many players (Tyler Herro comes to mind) don’t want to be labeled a shooter. They say they want to be seen as capable of contributing in multiple ways.

Of Lewis’ 150 shots last season, 131 (87.3 percent) were from three-point range. She smiled when asked about being considered a shooter.

“I love the label,” she said. “They may say, just a shooter. I can dribble.”

But …

“You score points,” Lewis said. “That’s pretty much the goal. If you want to win games, you have to score points.”

Playing for pride

For a second straight preseason, Alabama will play Jacksonville State in a closed scrimmage. This was intentional, Alabama first-year coach Nate Oats said.

Without mentioning the opponent by name, Oats said it was the same team “that drilled Alabama last year. I want to see if the guys have a little pride in them.”

Research assistants

Kyle Tucker of The Athletic asked players such questions as what SEC home court made the biggest impression.

Aaron Nesmith of Vanderbilt cited Florida’s wordy Exactech Arena at Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Of the taunts he’s heard from the seats in Gainesville, he said with a smile, “Florida fans do their research.”

Happy birthday

To Tony Cooper. He turned 48 on Thursday. … To Kyle Wiltjer. He turns 27 on Sunday (today). … To former UK football coach Bill Curry. He turns 77 on Monday.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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