If Skal Labissiere needs encouragement to stay the course with his more-gradual-than-expected impact as a college player, he could get inspiration from a Vanderbilt player.
No Division I school offered Luke Kornet a scholarship when his high school career ended. Because of the chance at academic scholarship money, he considered attending SMU and being a manager on the Mustangs’ basketball team.
“I thought I’d try to walk on,” he said this week. “If not, I’d just be a manager. Just, I don’t know, something to do and stay around basketball.”
After two transitional seasons for Vandy, Kornet comes to Rupp Arena on Saturday as an impact player.
“Our best rebounder,” Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said this month. “Our best defensive player. Our best shot blocker. Our best communicator.
“All things, honestly, I never, ever envisioned or imagined Luke would become. But Luke has become that for us.”
An injury this season re-confirmed Kornet’s worth. He missed five games because of a torn medial collateral ligament. The Commodores only beat Wofford and Western Michigan in that stretch.
In his third game back from injury, Kornet posted the second triple-double in Vandy history. He scored 11 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 10 shots against Auburn. The 10 blocks were a Vandy record.
Kornet gives Vandy a 7-foot-1 rim protector. Without him, the Commodores had a 6-6 player in that spot.
“We’re a much more difficult team to score against, especially around the goal because of that length,” Stallings said.
More than once, Stallings has made the point that Kornet is more than a face-the-basket shooter, the skill for which he is best known. As if on cue, Kornet made that clear in Vandy’s 88-74 victory at Tennessee on Wednesday. He posted a double-double (10 points, 14 rebounds), blocked five shots and had three assists. He did not shoot a three-pointer.
“Honestly, I can go in a game and not take a single three or I go 0-for-5 from three, and I can still think I played well or contributed,” Kornet said. “My main focus has been on just trying to guard. Just protecting the rim.”
Even if he never got off the bench, Kornet would be a familiar name for Kentucky fans. His ties to Lexington and UK span several generations.
His grandfather, Milton Kornet, was an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UK from 1963 until retiring in 1999.
His father, Frank Kornet, was a standout player for Lexington Catholic. He played for Vanderbilt in the late 1980s.
Luke Kornet, who was born in Lexington, knows the city well. Although he moved away at the age of 4, he and his family regularly returned to visit. He recalled several Lexington landmarks: playing basketball at Shillito Park and UK’s “blue courts,” eating at Joe Bologna’s.
“When I think of my summers growing up, I think of spending them in Lexington,” he said. “A lot of good memories.”
I was slow and unathletic. . . . I was so behind physically. I always tried to be a pretty aware individual, and not think I’m way better than anyone. The person I was as a senior and junior in high school, I was not capable of playing Division I basketball.
His grandfather, who is 6-5, recalled how another of his sons, John, who played for Canisius, would work with young Luke at a backyard hoop.
“He was teaching him moves under the basket,” Milton Kornet said. “Luke was really into it. He paid attention.”
Luke played for his father in high school, at Liberty Christian in Lantana, Texas, which is near Dallas.
Of Luke’s absence from the recruiting sub-culture, Milton said, “He was an unknown person.”
Even growing 7 inches as a high school senior failed to get Kornet noticed. He did not feel slighted.
“I was slow and unathletic . . . ,” he said. “I was so behind physically. I always tried to be a pretty aware individual, and not think I’m way better than anyone. The person I was as a senior and junior in high school, I was not capable of playing Division I basketball.”
Kornet said he believed that someday he could develop and become such a player. To goose the process along, an older brother put together a video highlight reel.
“When I saw the highlight film, I said, boy, this boy can play,” Milton Kornet said. “How come he’s not being recruited?”
An AAU experience playing with Myles Turner helped spur interest. “He made it easy to look good because he was a good teammate,” Kornet said of Turner, who later played for Texas and now is with the Indiana Pacers.
Stallings entered the picture about this time. The Vandy coach came to a gym to see another AAU player. But Kornet caught his eye.
By then, Kornet was getting interest from Kansas State, TCU, Purdue and, to a lesser degree, Arizona and Nebraska.
His father’s good experience playing for Vanderbilt influenced his decision to sign with the Commodores. “Quite a bit,” Kornet said.
Stallings’ expectations were not out-sized.
“I thought I was going to get a guy who might be, could be, that ‘stretch four,’ that ‘four man’ who could extend defenses. He had a good-looking stroke. You could tell he was a long kid. You didn’t know how much of the physicality of the game would get to him.”
“I needed time to develop here in college and learn how to play with the physicality and speed,” Kornet said of his three seasons with Vandy. “I was not, like, a five-star recruit, and I didn’t expect to be. And I needed this time to get better.”
While at Vandy, Kornet has grown 2 inches, increased his standing reach to 9 feet, 6 inches and gained 30 pounds.
Kornet has not enjoyed much individual success against Kentucky. In two games, he’s made one of 12 shots. He dismissed the notion that his family’s longtime rooting interest in UK distracted him. Instead, he credited the Cats. “Their defense was very good,” he said.
Of course, Saturday’s game in Rupp is something of a homecoming. His parents, grandparents, older brother, an aunt and uncle expect to attend.
“It’s a special trip,” Frank Kornet said.
The game also holds practical value for Vanderbilt. Once the subject of talk about a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, the Commodores could use an enhancement to their postseason résumé.
“I’d like to see him beat Kentucky,” Milton Kornet said of his grandson. “That’s what I’d like to see. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”