UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Labissiere case not unusual, but 'firestorm' understandable

Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) shots over Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe (13) during Big Blue Madness at Rupp Arena Friday, Oct. 16, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot
Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) shots over Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe (13) during Big Blue Madness at Rupp Arena Friday, Oct. 16, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Amy Wallot Herald-Leader

At Media Day on Wednesday, John Calipari posed what he hopes is the most pertinent question about Kentucky basketball this pre-season: What's the big deal?

Calipari downplayed the significance of the NCAA not yet determining when, or if, star freshman Skal Labissiere will be eligible this season.

"There's probably 50 players" that have their eligibility scrutinized each year, he said, adding that UK had five players have eligibility reviews last year. "A couple of them got cleared a week before the (first) game," he said.

Not all eligibility questions are answered before the start of a fall semester because the NCAA Eligibility Center handles athletes from some 700 schools in Divisions I and II. But a message is sent when a high-profile athlete expected to play a high-profile sport for a high-profile basketball program is not yet ruled eligible in mid-October. The message: The NCAA believes there is reason to check, re-check and triple-check a potential problem.

The NCAA has not yet made a ruling on the eligibility of one of Kansas' top freshmen, Cheick Diallo. Media reports have suggested it's all right for Kansas fans to be concerned.

Calipari all but scoffed at media interest in Labissiere's review.

"How did this ... become like a firestorm?" he said.

Well, let's see. First, it's UK basketball, which is synonymous with firestorms, real and imagined. As Calipari himself said at the 2011 Madness, "We do more than move the needle. We are the needle."

Then, there's the widely held view that Labissiere may be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Calipari has likened him to Karl-Anthony Towns, the UK player who was the first pick in the 2015 draft. Key player on the pre-season No. 1 team equals heightened interest.

The what's-the-big-deal question does apply to the idea of someone trying to use a star prospect for financial gain. AAU coach Keith Easterwood helped light this fuse last year by saying Labissiere's guardian asked him how to profit off a player. Easterwood followed up last week by saying that this kind of question is fairly routine in the recruiting world.

"Over the years, it's not uncommon (to be asked) 'How do I get a shoe deal?'" he said Tuesday on Gary Parrish's Memphis-based radio show. "I get people who call me because they have a relationship. Because they think they have a good player. People ask, 'How do I get paid for this?'

"I've never stepped over the line and tried to pimp a kid. But I get those calls all the time."

Parrish, a respected reporter for CBSSports.com, said Labissiere's guardian, Gerald Hamilton, went to great lengths during the recruiting process trying to find out how he could fund his 501 (c)(3) foundation called Reach Your Dream.

"It's not terribly unusual for an adult to try to profit in some way off of an elite recruit," Parrish said in an email. "But Gerald mishandled the entire situation from the very beginning, and that's why this has become such a big deal. He talked openly, and constantly, about funding his foundation — the implication always being that Skal was his key to doing that."

Parrish also questioned Hamilton's judgment with regard to Labissiere playing for more than one high school and AAU program.

"He bounced Skal from one summer team to the next, then from one high school to another, all of which is often a red flag in the NCAA's eyes," Parrish said in the email. "So Gerald, and Gerald alone, created this dilemma, and I predicted this years ago. So now Skal is left to see what, if anything, the NCAA can find. And that really is too bad. Because Skal genuinely is a sweetheart of a young man, and he wouldn't be in this position if Gerald would've just played everything straight ... or, at least, less clumsily."

Better than Simmons?

Oak Hill Academy Coach Steve Smith coached against Skal Labissiere's team in the Marshall County Hoop Fest last year. He came away impressed.

"I thought he was the best player we played against last year," Smith said.

Among the players Oak Hill Academy faced last season were Harry Giles, the No. 1 rated player in the class of 2016, and LSU freshman Ben Simmons, who some rated the best player in the class of 2015.

"I thought he was better than Ben Simmons," Smith said. "And, Ben Simmons, everybody talks about him being LeBron (James)."

Why does Smith think Labissiere is better than Simmons? "His skill level for a player his size was off the charts ... ," the Oak Hill coach said. "He moved athletically like he was about a 6-2 guard, not a 6-11 guy."

Smith is hoping the NCAA makes Labissiere eligible.

"Because he is a good player," the Oak Hill coach said. "I'm sure they (the Cats) need him this year desperately. He would be one of their best players, if not their best player, probably."

Skal and Cal

One of Skal Labissiere's high school coaches said the player will have no problem being pushed by John Calipari.

"He'll welcome it," said Terry Tippett, who coached Labissiere at Evangelical Christian School in Cordova, Tenn. "He soaks up coaching. He wants to be coached. So I don't think (Calipari) can be too hard on him."

When reminded of how Calipari constantly wanted more-more-more from such talented players as Terrence Jones, Julius Randle and Karl-Anthony Towns, Tippett laughed.

"He wants to be good," he said of Labissiere. "He wants to be coached. He may not know he's not playing hard, but he isn't intentionally lazy. Cal will bring that out of him."

Of course, not all players welcome a demanding coach.

"Some of them resist you," Tippett said. "Some are OK. They can't get enough. They ask questions. They stay later.

"We couldn't run Skal out of the gym. He was in the gym all day every day. He asks questions. He's a student of the game. He just works, works, works. That's why I don't think Cal can be too hard on him."

One man, one vote

The Southeastern Conference will announce its pre-season awards this week. Media vote for an all-league team, Player of the Year and predicted order of finish.

Here's my ballot:

Order of finish:

1. Kentucky

2. Texas A&M

3. Vanderbilt

4. LSU

5. Georgia

6. Mississippi State

7. South Carolina

8. Florida

9. Ole Miss

10. Auburn

11. Tennessee

12. Alabama

13. Arkansas

14. Missouri

Comment: If only all decisions were this easy. Kentucky has finished no worse than second in John Calipari's six seasons as coach. His 80.4 winning percentage in SEC games is second only to Adolph Rupp (84.1 percent) in league history. A&M, Vandy and LSU pose real threats to Kentucky's hegemony. But, c'mon.

All-SEC team:

Guard — Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

Guard — Danuel House, Texas A&M

Forward — Ben Simmons, LSU

Forward — Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

Center — Damian Jones, Vanderbilt

Comment: The thought of all freshmen on the All-SEC team seems plausible. It appeals to the revolutionary in any voter. Say, Labissiere, Simmons, Jamal Murray (UK), Malik Newman (Mississippi State) and Antonio Blakeney (LSU). But how can you leave off the league's best point guard in Ulis, a physical/experienced talent in House and the steady/productive big man in Jones? Apologies to Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody (the league's most entertaining player), A&M glue-guy Alex Caruso, Vandy guard Riley LaChance, Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith and Georgia guard tandem of Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann.

Player of the Year:

Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

Comment: As former UK star Sam Bowie once observed, a great big horse is better than a great little horse. So it was tempting to cast a safe vote for Labissiere, Simmons or Jones. But, in this case, the great little horse is expected to control the ball, lead on and off the court, set a get-this-guy-off-me tone defensively and, maybe best of all, give the Kentucky team an irresistable David-and-Goliath flavor. As Bruce Springsteen once observed: From small things, mama, big things one day come.

'Pro Day' leftovers

Two impressions from watching the telecast of UK's so-called "Pro Day" last Sunday:

■ Less is more. ESPNU commentators turned down the gushing, which made last year's telecast of the event seem like a two-hour infomercial.

This year the telecast let UK facts speak for themselves ... for the most part.

Of course, hyperbole was not totally absent. When ESPNU let viewers eavesdrop on a miked John Calipari talk in a team huddle, host Doris Burke said that the UK coach displayed "subtle brilliance." She seemed to mean he relaxed players with a lighter tone.

This prompted Seth Greenberg to wryly observe that Calipari would use a darker tone when the team commits a turnover in a pre-season exhibition game. (Straightforward brilliance?)

■ More is more. The telecast focused more on the UK players on the court rather than the ESPNU panelists. Last year was more College GameDay panel with unidentified players moving in the background rather than fans displaying signs. This year, the hosts were largely talking off camera as viewers watched the players.

Silence is golden ...

But not blue and white.

Former UK player Jon Hood tweeted this as he watched UK's Pro Day: "ESPNU ... tell these commentators to SHUT UP."

Comment: With all the analysis and commentary, viewers had to deal with sensory overload. And it was Oct. 11.

Happy birthday

To Kyle Wiltjer. He turns 23 on Tuesday. ... To Todd Ziegler. He turned 50 on Friday. ... To former UK football coach Bill Curry. He turns 73 on Wednesday.

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