UK Men's Basketball

Sestina as Kentucky’s player-coach? It looked that way in season opener.

At 22 years of age and playing in a fifth college season, Nate Sestina considers himself something of a player-coach on the latest freshman-dependent Kentucky team.

“Just trying to break things down a little bit,” he said Thursday of his interaction with his UK teammates. “Make it easier for the guys on our team who are younger. The game is so fast, and it’s moving and they’re not used to playing college basketball. So their brains are moving and everything is like this giant ball moving down a hill.

“If I can slow that down and bring that back down, calm them down a little bit, that’s going to help us out, especially later on in the year when we’re playing conference play.”

When asked about Sestina being a coach, UK Coach John Calipari quipped, “He can coach. . . . As long as they pay me, I’m good.”

More seriously, Calipari said Sestina and walk-on Riley Welch, the son of a coach, acted like coaches while on the bench during Kentucky’s opening-game victory over Michigan State on Tuesday night. The UK coach said he would suggest to the players that they follow the Sestina-Welch example in future games.

While on the bench, Sestina and Welch alertly kept count of the defensive stops their teammates made against Michigan State.

“That’s two stops, one more we got a ‘kill,’” Calipari said the pair called out to teammates on the court. “That’s what you want on your team.”

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In his Kentucky debut against Michigan State on Tuesday night, Nate Sestina contributed seven points, a team-high six rebounds, two assists and a block. Alex Slitz Alex Slitz

Mid-major insight?

Although Calipari downplayed it, Sestina might have another way to contribute in the next few weeks, beginning with Friday’s game against Eastern Kentucky. Over the next 26 days, UK will play six games against so-called mid-major teams.

As a graduate transfer from Bucknell, Sestina has been on the we-can-prove-something side of these matchups.

“Anything can happen,” Sestina said his advice to teammates would be. “When I was at Bucknell, we played these teams all the time. And it was always a close game. So I think the thing we need to do is we need to realize they’re still college basketball players, and they’re very talented and anything can happen on any given night.”

An over-riding question regarding Sestina was how well his productive play for Bucknell would translate on Kentucky’s level. Against Michigan State his busy stat line included seven points, a team-high six rebounds, two assists and a block.

Sestina credited his productive game to his coaches at Bucknell.

“I have a good foundation,” he said of the 100 games he played for Bucknell. “I had it for four years. My coaches at Bucknell definitely did a good job teaching me the right things, and making sure I do all the right things.”

Those things include rebounding, going after loose balls, setting good screens and encouraging teammates, he said.

“I think the translation kind of showed,” Sestina said before adding a can’t-be-satisfied note seemingly straight out of the Coaching 101 textbook. “I just have to be better going after rebounds.”

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Ashton Hagans, left, and Nate Sestina celebrated after Kentucky knocked off No. 1 Michigan State in the Champions Classic. Alex Slitz Alex Slitz

Conditioning helps

Sestina also credited improved fitness. He’s lost 20-plus pounds since joining the Kentucky team this past summer.

Being in better shape “allowed me to step outside my limits and out of my comfort zone,” he said. “So I feel a lot more confident moving into a late-game (situation). Whereas before I knew I was tired. I had like a mental block. And now, it’s a little bit different where I’m mentally tough enough to push through it.”

One late-game contribution from Sestina against Michigan State was a three-pointer with just under 10 minutes to play. It gave UK its largest lead, 54-41.

The Bucknell team also cheered on Sestina. The team watched UK’s game against Michigan State as it bused back home after a victory at Fairfield. Calipari said the bus had to pull off the road for safety sake when Sestina hit the three-pointer. That was an embellishment, a spokesman for Bucknell wrote in an email. But the shot did thrill the Bucknell team.

“It was kind of like that fork in them where they were done . . . ,” Sestina said of the shot.

When asked about the shot coming off him being a trailer in transition, Sestina said. “I did that for four years for Bucknell. It’s like breathing with me right now. I just have to make sure I hit it every time.”

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Friday

Eastern Kentucky at No. 2 Kentucky

When: 7 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Eastern Kentucky 1-0, Kentucky 1-0

Series: Kentucky leads 12-0

Last meeting: Kentucky won 88-67 on Dec. 9, 2015, in Lexington.

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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