UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Kentucky, Duke prove that not all stars shine with same brightness

Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) knocked the ball away from Boston Celtics center Tyler Zeller (44) on a rebound during the second half in Boston on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Boston won 113-99.
Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) knocked the ball away from Boston Celtics center Tyler Zeller (44) on a rebound during the second half in Boston on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Boston won 113-99. Associated Press

Here’s something that’s plainly true, but deserves repeating: Basketball recruits are like wines. The vintage changes from year to year.

The grapes one year produce an excellent Cabernet to accompany your filet mignon. Another year the vineyard convinces you to drink beer.

The same holds for basketball players. The prospect that knocks the socks off all those recruiting analysts one year may not be nearly as good as the prospect that does the same another year. Same top-of-the-list hype, but not the same impactful player.

ESPN college basketball commentator Jay Bilas made this point recently while trying to provide perspective on Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere.

“You can be a top-five player,” Bilas said, “but top five is not the same every year. The No. 1 recruiting class is not the same (every year).”

The NBA Draft teaches the same lesson. Some years the overall No. 1 pick transforms a franchise: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969), Magic Johnson (1979), LeBron James (2003). Some years the overall No. 1 pick does not change a team’s fortunes: LaRue Martin (1972), Kwame Brown (2001), Anthony Bennett (2013).

As Labissiere looks to improve, it might comfort UK fans to know Duke’s freshmen this season inspire similar impatience among their fans. Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter and Derryck Thornton are not as good as Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. What’s wrong?!

“Nothing wrong with them,” Bilas said of Duke’s freshmen this season. “You just don’t give credit for how good the guys were last year.”

Along the same lines, Bilas said of Labissiere, “Comparing him to Karl-Anthony Towns is not really fair.”

Another ESPN commentator, Fran Fraschilla, made the same point. Of residents of the Big Blue Nation, he said, “They’ve been spoiled in the sense that they’ve had guys like Karl Towns and Anthony Davis. Now, they’ve got a normal, really good college basketball team.”

Of course, UK fans consider labeling their favorite basketball team as “normal” or “really good” an insult. Dick Vitale found that out when he worked the telecast of UK’s game against Arizona State.

“All I kept hearing in the lobby of the Hyatt was how this team was going to be great like the previous teams,” Vitale said. “So I watched them live for the first time.

“Then I said during the telecast, Let’s make it very clear. This is going to be a very good Kentucky team. They’re going to win their share of games. They’re probably going to win the SEC. But nobody can convince me that this is a team in the category of John Wall’s or Anthony Davis’ or last year’s team. In no shape or form.”

As you might imagine, this observation went over about as well as a Hillary Clinton speech at a Donald Trump rally.

“I thought that was a logical assessment,” Vitale said. “And, oh my God. A couple people got all over me on Twitter. They said I was biased against (UK), which is ridiculous.”

Then Vitale felt the need to amend that comment.

“In fairness, I have to say, for every one (who said he held an anti-UK bias), 10 said they totally agreed,” he said.


In case you missed it, Asbury University graduate Steve Smith was among the candidates announced Monday for possible inclusion in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016.

Of course, Smith is the longtime coach at Oak Hill Academy, a private boarding school best known for advanced basketball preparation.

“Kind of exciting to be nominated … ,” Smith said. “I don’t know if I’d ever get in. But just to be nominated is a thrill.”

Smith wondered aloud about how many high school coaches have been enshrined. He recalled Bob Hurley, a member of the 2010 class.

A Google search turned up one other coach known primarily for success on the high school level. Ernest Blood led Passaic High to 159 straight victories and seven New Jersey states titles. He was part of the Hall of Fame class of 1960.

The multitude of stars to play for Smith include at least five who went on to Kentucky: Ron Mercer, Rajon Rondo, Jules Camara, Cliff Hawkins and, briefly, Alex Legion.

Smith also coached Carmelo Anthony.

Smith, who is in his 31st season directing Oak Hill basketball, has a career record that anyone not coaching the Harlem Globetrotters might envy: 997-65. His 1000th victory might come this week in Portland, Ore., where Oak Hill is playing in a Nike-sponsored tournament.

Congrats (Part II)

Steve Smith isn’t the only Central Kentuckian among the people nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2016.

Lee Rose, once the coach at Transylvania before moving on to UNC Charlotte and Purdue, was also among the nominees announced Monday.

So, too, is former UK Coach Eddie Sutton, whose greater fame came before (Arkansas) and after (Oklahoma State) his four seasons in Lexington.

Other nominees of note:

Former Louisville player Junior Bridgeman.

Former North Carolina player Bobby Jones (note to Derek Willis: further evidence that John Calipari paid you a high compliment with the comparison to Jones).

Former CBS analyst Billy Packer.

Rudy Tomjanovich. On a personal note, Rudy was a senior when I was a freshman at Hamtramck (Mich.) High School. So he was a basketball hero. Incidentally, Rudy later played for Michigan, and made his college debut against Kentucky. He had 17 points and 27 rebounds for Michigan in that game. UK won 96-79. He still holds the Michigan career records for total rebounds (1,039) and rebound average (14.4 per game).

‘It’s coaching’

The interaction between Coach Roy Williams and senior forward Brice Johnson was an entertaining subplot to the North Carolina-UCLA game at the CBS Sports Classic last weekend.

Early in the first half, Williams benched Johnson. Then the UNC coach scolded Johnson. The player’s reaction? After Williams returned his attention to the game, Johnson sat at the opposite end of the bench. The expression on his face brought to mind the admonition about not pouting because Santa Claus is coming to town.

When Johnson re-entered the game, he played passionately. He scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead North Carolina to a come-from-behind victory.

In the postgame news conference, Williams said — and Johnson confirmed — that the player’s “bad language” caused the benching and scolding.

When a reporter asked about Johnson ultimately energizing UNC, Williams chuckled. “Brice’s energy affecting us? That’s a good one,” he said. “I’ve tried my four years to get my guy to have more energy.”

When another reporter asked about a “love-hate relationship” between coach and player, Williams offered a correction.

“It’s not a love-hate relationship,” he said. “It’s coaching. … With Brice, it’s a 24-hour job to push his intensity level to where it needs to be.”

A moment later, Williams suggested that he needed to have his own enthusiasm recharged from time to time.

“This is my 43rd year of coaching,” Williams said. “I need some Brice Johnsons (to inspire the necessary coaching intensity).”

Weighty matter

Of course, there’s usually no immediate quick fix when a player struggles. That’s a reason coaches frequently talk about a “process.”

Dan Issel, the career scoring leader for UK’s men’s basketball program, put this in perspective.

Issel acknowledged that adding weight will help UK freshman Skal Labissiere deal with physical play. But, Issel added, more pounds is not a magic cure.

For instance, the Denver Nuggets drafted LSU guard Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) with the third pick of the 1990 NBA Draft. The Nuggets immediately decided he needed to gain weight to withstand physical play in the NBA.

“He came in here like a fat, little pig his rookie year,” Issel said, “and he was awful. He was terrible.”

In Jackson’s second season, Issel became the Nuggets’ coach.

“We got a bunch of that weight off,” Issel said, “and he was a much better player.”

So, Issel said, a slender player like Labissiere should be careful about putting on weight.

“Sure, 20 more pounds and more muscle would certainly help the young man,” Issel said. “But you don’t have to be a bodybuilder to play basketball.”

Advantage Robey

When discussing freshman Skal Labissiere’s adjustment to college basketball, former UK big man Rick Robey said he had an advantage in making the transition from high school.

“I had a lot of help from a bunch of seniors,” he said. Robey said such players as Bob Guyette, Kevin Grevey, Mike Flynn and Jimmy Dan Conner — seniors all — offered him guidance.

Of course, seniors are a rare breed for Kentucky in this age of so-called one-and-done players. Alex Poythress is the lone senior this season and he’s got the unenviable task of returning from a torn ACL.

Much more than Robey, Labissierre is on his own.

Vitale alert

If you are a fan of Dick Vitale, you’ll want to watch the three additional Kentucky games he will be working this season.

Vitale said he would provide color commentary for UK’s games against Vanderbilt on Jan. 23, at South Carolina on Feb. 13 and at Florida on March 1.

“They are not going to be easy games (for Kentucky to win),” he said.

Happy birthday

To Cliff Hawkins. He turned 34 on Christmas Eve. … To former South Carolina coach (and Tates Creek High graduate) Darrin Horn. He turned 43 on Christmas Eve. …To Rodney Dent. He turned 45 on Christmas. … To former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. He turns 74 on Sunday (today). … To Kansas Coach Bill Self. He turns 53 on Sunday (today). … To Travis Ford. He turns 46 on Tuesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton