Since the John Calipari era commenced in 2009, point guard at Kentucky has become to college basketball what tailback at Alabama is to college football:
The glamour position in the sport.
Yet, as one star after another — think Wall, Knight, Harrison, Ulis, Fox — have taken the Kentucky point-guard baton, one thing the Cats have not had under Cal is an old-fashioned “quarterback battle” to claim the starting job.
Until this year.
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“Quade and Shai right now are competing,” Calipari said Thursday, before the annual throng of reporters (and others) gathered at Memorial Coliseum for UK men’s basketball media day. “It’s a great battle.”
What makes a competition between Green and Gilgeous-Alexander so tantalizing is the two offer a stark contrast in playing styles.
At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Green is a pass-first floor general.
“Quade is more of a vocal leader,” UK freshman swing man Kevin Knox said. “He loves to talk. He’s really good at facilitating the ball.”
Sophomore forward Tai Wynyard said Green “kind of runs our team. He’s kind of like the little pit bull who sits there ‘Alright, we’re in this now.’ He’s telling everybody to be in their spots, definitely a very good leader.”
As a senior at Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia, Green averaged 20.8 points and eight assists and was chosen as a McDonald’s All-American.
“I’m a Philly guard,” Green says. “It’s in my blood.”
What does it mean to be a “Philly guard?”
“Tough. Tough. All we (are) is tough and not scared of anything,” Green said.
In contrast, Gilgeous-Alexander is a “scoring point guard” with what Calipari refers to as an “old man’s game.” The 6-6, 180-pounder with a 7-foot wingspan features a crafty array of flip shots and step-throughs that allow him to get off shots near the rim.
He’s also a defensive menace.
“Shai is more of a scoring-type point guard,” Knox said. “His defense is crazy, tipping balls.”
Wynyard’s scouting report on Gilgeous-Alexander begins with “tall and really, really, really long. Coach Cal keeps harping on that 7-foot wingspan. He’s really good at getting steals and finishing with contact.”
A product of Hamilton, Ontario, Gilgeous-Alexander finished playing high school basketball at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn. He averaged 18.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists last season.
Passed over for the McDonald’s All-American Game, Gilgeous-Alexander lit up the Derby Classic in Louisville by going for 29 points, nine rebounds and six assists while winning team MVP honors.
“I think of myself as a point guard who can also play (shooting guard),” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
How does a sleek, 21st Century hooper come to develop “an old-man’s” approach to basketball?
“A lot of point guards in today’s game use athleticism and speed and quickness as the keys to their game,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I’m not the most athletic guy, so I’ve got to use angles and tricks and flip shots and stuff like that to produce.”
To decisively gain the upper hand in UK’s point guard competition, Calipari said Green needs to work on playing faster.
“Play faster for him may be just give up the ball quicker,” Calipari said. “It’s not run (it) down your neck. If a guy is open, it’s (a) quick (pass). That’s playing fast. For him, that’s what we have to have him do.”
For Gilgeous-Alexander to emerge as UK’s lead guard, Calipari said he needs to learn to see more of the floor than what is immediately in front of him.
“That’s something with all freshmen, they’ve always played with the ball,” Calipari said. “Trying to get (Gilgeous-Alexander) to expand his vision is what we’re trying to do.”
“When you come here, you know who was before you,” Green said. “So you’ve really got to put on a show just like they did — or better.”