Kentucky’s game against Ohio State on Saturday marks a homecoming for freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe. Although he’s been gone only since last summer, his friends and family might not recognize him.
If form holds, the Briscoe that sets a gritty tone for UK is not the same player who left Union, N.J., as a celebrated McDonald’s All-American.
The new Briscoe attacks offensively and defensively. For the most part, he’s abandoned the desire for style points.
“He’s been terrific,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “I’ve gotten calls from New York. They can’t believe it. Like, he never really guarded. Now, he’s become the best (defender) you will see.”
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Offensively, Briscoe has set the standard for straight-line drives to the basket. Kentucky fans may recall that Calipari set a preseason objective of making Briscoe all business with the ball.
The home folks in the metropolitan New York area apparently noticed the difference.
“They watch how he plays north-south,” Calipari said, sounding like a proud papa. “And there’s no east-west.”
Realizing what he’d just said, Calipari softened that declaration.
“Every once in a while it’ll come out because it’s there,” Calipari said of the east-west razzle-dazzle.
He’s been terrific. I’ve gotten calls from New York. They can’t believe it. Like, he never really guarded. Now, he’s become the best (defender) you will see.
John Calipari, on Isaiah Briscoe
When asked about Briscoe’s play so far this season, teammate Tyler Ulis sounded like an unabashed fan.
“That’s my boy . . . ,” he said. “(Briscoe) is playing very well. Doing his job defensively and offensively.”
The glaring problem for Briscoe has been free-throw shooting. He’s made only 38.9 percent of his free throws (14 of 36). That ranks last among UK players.
Calipari, who professed not to be concerned, said the effort UK players expend in attacking on both ends of the floor adversely affects free-throw accuracy. Briscoe missed all five shots he took from the line in the last two games.
Maybe being close to home Saturday will help. Union, N.J., is about 18 miles west of New York City. Briscoe’s father, George, told New York-based sportswriter Adam Zagoria that he expected 40 to 50 family members to attend the game in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
“Like real family,” the elder Briscoe said. “We’ll be doing dinner afterward and he’ll be home for a couple days after that.”
Such homecomings usually cause Calipari to fret. More than once he’s said that his players do not play well in returns home. Ulis has twice been an exception to this rule.
When asked if Briscoe might thrive in front of the home folks, Calipari said, “I don’t know. I hope so. We’re going to need him to thrive.”
Kentucky does not have the luxury of shrugging off individual poor performances, Calipari said.
“You take one guy like Alex (Poythress), take Marcus (Lee), take Tyler, you take a guy out of the mix, we’re really not nearly the same team.”
More than once, Calipari has talked about Briscoe’s will to win. This intangible was on display against Arizona State last weekend. With UK ahead by three points early in the second half, Briscoe scored nine straight points. That pointed Kentucky toward victory.
Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley lauded Briscoe’s strong body and basketball instincts. While calling attention to how Briscoe can be a better perimeter shooter (four of 16 from three-point range), Hurley added, “He checks every other box for me.”
Freshman big man Isaac Humphries said he’s improved as a player.
“I’ve gotten more adjusted to this style of play,” he said.
College basketball in the U.S. is a quicker game that features more athleticism than he experienced in his native Australia.
“Obviously, my game is not alley-oop dunks and stuff like that,” Humphries said. “That’s just not me at the moment.”
▪ Beating Ohio State would be Calipari’s 200th victory as UK coach. He would rank fifth in program history behind Adolph Rupp (876), Joe B. Hall (297), Tubby Smith (263) and Rick Pitino (219).
▪ Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery and sideline reporter Allie LaForce will call the UK-Ohio State game for CBS.