John Clay

Enjoy your summer, John Calipari’s giving off good vibrations

Calipari says 2019 will be a breakout year for returning players

Kentucky men's basketball head coach John Calipari responds to the return of Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, and EJ Montgomery to the team.
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Kentucky men's basketball head coach John Calipari responds to the return of Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, and EJ Montgomery to the team.

At his annual summer press conference Tuesday, John Calipari seemed in good spirits. Tanned and relaxed, he didn’t force us to look at snapshots from his European vacation; he joked about son Brad putting his name in the transfer portal and he almost (almost) made it through an entire media session without launching into a full-throated defense of the “one-and-done” system.

“I’m really happy with where we are right now,” said the coach when asked about his 2019-20 roster.

Why shouldn’t he be? EJ Montgomery is back. Nick Richards is back. Both big men yanked their names from the NBA Draft to spend another season up close and personal with Big Blue Nation. Returning point guard Ashton Hagans should have a breakthrough season, Calipari said. And returning guard Immanuel Quickley played his best basketball at the end of last season.

“The last time we had four players back who were quality players like that was 2014-15,” said the coach.

Here in the commonwealth, however, Calipari is far from the only happy roundball camper. Holding a press conference of his own up I-64 on Tuesday was Jordan Nwora, Louisville’s top player who also pulled his name from the draft list just before the deadline. “I told Coach Mack I wanted to be a first-round pick,” Nwora said.

That would be Chris Mack, the second-year U of L coach who reeled in a top-10 recruiting class of “super six” recruits, five of whom rank in 247Sports’ Top 120. Add the rookies to returnees Nwora, Steven Enoch, Dwayne Sutton, Malik Williams, Ryan McMahon and Darius Perry and, well, reports of Louisville taking a long walk in the post-Pitino darkness were premature.

In fact, after the draft deadline, college basketball “insider” and serial tweeter Jon Rothstein ranked Louisville No. 2 and Kentucky No. 4 in his preseason Top 25. Over at CBS Sports, Gary Parrish’s latest Top 25 and 1 — Gary always goes the extra mile — has Kentucky at No. 3 with Louisville at No. 4.

Meanwhile, down in Bowling Green, that’s Rick Stansbury asking, “How about the ‘Toppers?” After all, Western Kentucky returns its top four scorers from last year’s 20-14 team, including leading scorer Charles Bassey, the 6-foot-11 five-star recruit who averaged 14.6 points and 10 rebounds last season before joining the “back-to-school” party.

OK, back to the Cats. Amid the celebrations greeting Montgomery’s announced return last week were a few drops of rain on the parade. After all, say the critics, EJ is not PJ. You know, PJ Washington, who squeezed the most out of his second college season. Washington averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds as a freshman. Montgomery averaged 3.8 and 4.1. PJ averaged 27.4 minutes per game as a rookie; EJ 15.1. In the final game of his debut season, the 2018 Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State, Washington scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. In UK’s 2019 Elite Eight overtime loss to Auburn, Montgomery played eight minutes, with no points and one rebound.

But EJ could be PJ. Montgomery has the size and skill. A sweetheart of a kid, he needs to develop Washington’s willingness to play through contact. “I told him, this thing is on you now,” Calipari said Tuesday, adding, “I’ve had about four or five guys maybe I would say were beyond where he is, but there’s not many that have the upside that he has.”

Classic Cal hyperbole? Maybe. Or maybe the state’s good hoops vibrations have gone viral, spreading from Bowling Green to Louisville and on into Lexington.

Pro tip: Make good use of your summer. Hit the beach. Relax with a good book. Rest up. Once again, basketball’s going to be fun.

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