John Calipari went heavy on experience and light on his star-studded newcomers in his starting lineup for Kentucky’s first exhibition game of the year Sunday evening.
All four of UK’s returning scholarship players from last season — Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards — were in Calipari’s starting five for the 80-53 victory over Georgetown College.
The occupant of the fifth spot was a bit of a surprise, perhaps more so to the player himself than anyone else. A few minutes after freshman forward Keion Brooks had been announced to the media as a starter for the Wildcats’ first preseason game, he still didn’t know he was in the lineup.
“I didn’t know, literally, until they called my name,” Brooks said afterward. “But it was fun to be able to go out there and start. I wasn’t really buying much into it — it’s just the first exhibition game. Whenever I came in — if I started or not — I just wanted to go in and play hard and make the right play every time down.”
When Brooks said “literally,” he meant it. According to him, he didn’t know for sure he was in the Cats’ starting five until the lights were out and he heard his name over the Rupp Arena PA system.
“When they said, ‘6-7 freshman from Fort Wayne, Indiana …’ that’s when I realized I was starting,” the 19-year-old said with a smile.
Brooks was the No. 24 overall player in the recruiting class of 2019, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. He didn’t get much buzz as a possible UK starter during the offseason — McDonald’s All-Americans Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney were often mentioned in that regard, as was freshman wing Johnny Juzang — but Calipari has praised Brooks’ versatility in recent weeks.
Calipari also said Friday not to read too much into his starting lineup Sunday. At that point, he said he hadn’t even decided on his first five.
“Don’t know yet. We’ve still got a couple of days, and really it doesn’t matter,” Calipari said. “I’m trying different combinations now in practice.”
The UK coach said the recent addition of 6-9 forward Ben Jordan — a pitcher on the Kentucky baseball team — had allowed him to work with different lineups in practice, and that tinkering especially helped Brooks, who got to move to a perimeter role as a result. Brooks had been playing more with the “bigs” up until that point.
“We’re just trying different things,” Calipari said of these October sessions. “Really, half of the practice is them developing habits, which takes away from the team stuff that we – my staff’s all over me: ‘We still gotta do this … this … this.’ I said, ‘Look, until they get these habits down it doesn’t matter.’”
Brooks ended up playing 26 minutes and 11 seconds Sunday, the most of anyone on the team. He finished with eight points but just one rebound, expressing disappointment with his low number of boards and promising to work on that moving forward.
Even though it was just an exhibition game, the starting nod was a minor thrill for Brooks.
“It was surreal, to actually be at Kentucky and, ‘I’m starting. They’re calling my name out for the starters.’ But, like I said before, even if I didn’t start, I was still going to come in and play hard every possession,” he said.
Maxey, Whitney and highly touted graduate transfer Nate Sestina all came in as UK’s first substitutes of the game at the 14:36 mark of the first half. The Cats had already jumped out to a 16-4 lead by that point. Juzang entered the game at the 13:32 mark.
UK’s other scholarship player, reigning Kentucky Mr. Basketball Dontaie Allen, is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last December and has not been cleared for a full return. He was not in uniform Sunday but was present on the UK bench.
The Cats got a scare early in the second half, when Richards fell to the floor in pain after rolling his ankle. He was helped directly to the locker room, and UK announced a short time later that he would not return to Sunday night’s game as a result of the injury. It’s unclear how long he’ll be sidelined.
Kentucky will have one more exhibition game — against Kentucky State on Friday night — before opening the regular season against No. 1 Michigan State in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 5.