Best-case scenario: A freshman from New Zealand will bring new zeal to a Kentucky team in need of more competitive spirit along the front line. And he might get a chance to bring it barely 48 hours after joining the Cats.
Although he only met many of his Kentucky teammates Thursday, Tai Wynyard may play against Ohio State on Saturday.
UK Coach John Calipari coyly suggested he might want to get an immediate idea of what Wynyard can do.
To show he wasn’t kidding, Calipari recalled shoving a newcomer into a New Jersey Nets game. The newcomer, former Arkansas big man Joe Kleine, had joined the team in a trade but hadn’t practiced.
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Calipari was too busy with pre-game preparation to welcome Kleine to the team.
So in the second half, Calipari decided he wanted to take a look at what Kleine could do. “Joe, why don’t you get in there?” he said. As Calipari told the story, before reporting to the scorer’s table, Kleine stuck out his hand and playfully said to the coach, “By the way, I’m Joe Kleine.”
Kleine, who lives in Arkansas, recalled the exchange.
“It’s all true,” he said Thursday with a laugh.
When asked how he played, Kleine said he made a few shots and grabbed a few rebounds. “It wasn’t anything LeBron James (couldn’t do),” he said with another laugh.
But, he added, that can be enough for a big man to make a meaningful contribution, perhaps especially so for this Kentucky team.
“You hear coaches say all the time, and I heard myself say all the time, if you’re a big guy, if you’ll run and rebound, you’ll play,” Kleine said. “Regardless of the situation, get three or four offensive rebounds, get some defensive boards, and you’re running and involved, Cal will find a play he can run to keep you in the game. He might draw it up at a timeout, but he’ll find a dang play. I promise you that.”
That sounded about like what UK would like to see from Wynyard, who has been listed at 6-foot-9 and 254 pounds. With another freshman, Skal Labissiere, adjusting to a more physical college game, Wynyard represents a new hope for a muscled presence around the basket.
“It’s just another big body for us,” Tyler Ulis said of Wynyard. “I can’t wait to see what he can do on the court.”
Isaac Humphries, a freshman from Australia, said that Wynyard must adapt to a different playing style. The college game in the United States has more quickness and athleticism than what players experience in Australia or New Zealand.
“We’re a lot more structured and not (as) physical,” Humphries said.
Then there’s the issue of Wynyard joining a UK team that has already played 10 games and been training for months.
“We’ll try to help him through this because he’s so late to the season,” Ulis said. “He’s going to be a little behind.”
Kleine suggested a younger player (Wynyard turns 18 on Feb. 5) might have more difficulty as the new guy on a team.
“The more mature you are, you don’t worry about a whole lot of stuff,” Kleine said. “You crack a joke on the way in. Whereas, a younger person might make it a bit bigger than it needs to be.”
Ulis found his 11-for-39 shooting from three-point range hard to explain.
“I can’t believe I can’t make my shot right now,” he said. “But they’re going to fall. We’ll go from there.”
Ulis said the right elbow he hyper-extended against South Florida on Nov. 27 was no factor.
“I’m good,” he said. “It’s not a problem anymore.”
Ulis said the elbow affected his shooting in the next game (Illinois State), but not thereafter.
‘Kind of overwhelming’
Calipari enjoyed the experience of being honored by UMass on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Kind of overwhelming,” he said. “Because I saw people I haven’t seen in 20 years.”
UMass organized a dinner in honor of Calipari in Boston on Tuesday, then hung a banner during halftime of a game Wednesday to recognize how Calipari elevated the program to national prominence in the mid-1990s.
While touring the campus, Calipari noticed a new practice facility.
“Nicer practice facility than ours,” he said. “I told them I’m going to work on that.”