In Game II, Kentucky Coach John Calipari got the grit and fight he found lacking in Game I. No coincidence that freshman Isaiah Briscoe sat out Game I and played in Game II.
“We got better ... from last game to this game,” Calipari said after UK beat New Jersey Institute of Technology on Saturday night. “Now, part of it was Isaiah, no question.”
Briscoe, who sat out Friday night’s victory over Albany because of a bruised knee, delivered a bruising performance against NJIT. Coming off the bench, he scored 11 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, the latter the most by a UK guard since Ramel Bradley got 12 against Georgia on Feb. 19, 2008.
No Kentucky guard has grabbed more rebounds in a game since Rajon Rondo had 19 against Iowa on Nov. 21, 2005.
“I’m a rebounder,” said Briscoe, who comes across as refreshingly unaffected in interviews. “I like to rebound. That (doesn’t) surprise me.”
Fellow freshman Skal Labissiere also wasn’t surprised.
“You go up for a rebound, here’s Isaiah coming and snatching it from whoever,” Labissiere said. “Twelve rebounds from his position. I think that’s legit.”
Briscoe’s go-get-’em attitude about rebounding is, in part, a product of UK practices. Calipari punishes players with extra sprints when no one asserts himself and goes after a rebound.
“Coach always says, ‘It doesn’t matter who you snag it from,’” Briscoe said. “I don’t pay attention when I go get the rebound. I just know the ball’s in the air.”
Calipari has touted Briscoe’s toughness in the pre-season. It was not on display against Albany because Briscoe bumped knees with Dominique Hawkins. That caused him to sit out two practices and the opening game.
Briscoe embraces the tough guy role.
“That’s what coach speaks about when I’m on the floor,” he said. “While I’m out there, I’m just trying to win. I’m diving on the floor, trying to get loose balls and rebound.”
Briscoe traced his toughness to growing up in Union, N.J.
“East Coast,” he said. “I’m the youngest in my family. So, growing up, I always had to prove myself with everything in the house.”
I don’t pay attention when I go get the rebound. I just know the ball’s in the air
NJIT Coach Jim Engles was familiar with Briscoe from watching him play on the AAU circuit. So he knew Briscoe’s ability to play would present an added challenge for his team.
“When I saw him warming up, I was a little disappointed, to be honest with you,” Engles said. “I know he’s a really good player. ... He did some nice things, made some shots, rebounded. So he’s a very big complement to the rest of the guys.”
Calipari and players credited Briscoe with sparking Kentucky in the victory over NJIT. Kentucky started slowly, trailing throughout the first 10 minutes. Briscoe came off the bench and seemed to bring new life to the UK team.
When asked how much credit Briscoe deserved for UK’s victory, Labissiere said, “Oh, a lot. Because of his energy. ... He’s a bulldog.”
Teammate Alex Poythress agreed.
“He sparked it a lot,” he said of Briscoe. “He’s tough. He’s going to get rebounds (and) defend. That’s what we need. We need a defender out there.”
Calipari suggested that Briscoe brings qualities to the team that can’t be easily found in a boxscore: toughness, grit, competitiveness.
“He has a winning attitude,” the UK coach said. “He’s going to do what it takes. He’s going to play to win. ...
“He and Jamal (Murray) are perfect partners on the court. Jamal can do stuff that he can’t do. He does stuff that Jamal can’t do.”
Calipari felt so good, he could joke about a topic that irritated him in Friday’s opener.
“And they do one thing pretty well: turn it over,” the UK coach said. “They had seven between them. They both turned it over.”
Willis: ‘I want to play’
After two games, Derek Willis has matched his point total from all of last season. His 11 points against NJIT raised his two-game total to 25. That’s how many points he scored last season. He needs 16 more to match his career total.
“Derek went in and went crazy,” Calipari said. “Derek was good again.”
Calipari lauded Willis’ restraint. More than once, Willis blocked a shot, then found himself in transition with the ball. Rather than try to be a playmaker, he got the ball to a guard and got it back in position to score, Calipari said.
“I’ll say this, he wants to play,” Calipari said. “He wants to play. He came up and told me, ‘I want to play, coach.’ He’s not here like wanting to sit. ... You know what? He’s earning the time himself. I’m not giving it to him.”