Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball media day on Thursday:
1. The elephant in the room
John Calipari didn’t want to talk about it. The Kentucky coach said he had thoughts about the current FBI investigation into college basketball and presumably the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York’s criminal complaint that charged 10 people, four of them assistant basketball coaches, with fraud and bribery. Cal said he would express his thoughts at a later date, probably on CoachCal.com.
Not good enough. He got asked anyway. Cal danced and deflected until my colleague Jerry Tipton reminded him that this was “a media day not coach day,” and if the coach didn’t want to answer the question fine, but what assurances could he give Kentucky fans that they had nothing to worry about where the UK basketball program is concerned.
Calipari said UK has not been contacted by the FBI or the NCAA. It wasn’t a forceful statement and it would have been more effective if Calipari had delivered it at the outset of the press conference. It’s an obvious and legitimate question. Basketball fans everywhere are nervous. And they have every right to be. Coaches are nervous, too, even Calipari, whether he wants to admit it or not. Doesn’t mean he or the program has done anything wrong. It does mean, as Calipari said, no one knows where the investigation is going.
The players were asked about the investigation, as well. Most said they had not paid any attention to it. Those that had said they weren’t nervous because they know they or their teammates had not received anything.
“I know nobody here was promised anything,” said freshman PJ Washington.
One player was asked if he felt like he had missed out by not getting money.
“No, not at all,” said freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “Look at them now.”
2. Kevin Knox’s breakthrough
There were lots of questions about the freshmen, of course. There were lots of questions about Jarred Vanderbilt’s foot injury, which will keep the versatile 6-foot-9 freshman out until January. Calipari appeared cautious with his praise with most of his newcomers. Except one. Kevin Knox.
The coach said that Knox had an “unbelievable” practice on Tuesday. Calipari even called it a “bit of a breakthrough.”
“It was on rebounding the ball, playing tougher,” Calipari said. “It was driving into the lane and taking hits. Normally he would drive in and he would take a shot. I’m forcing him to drive. He’d rather shoot a jumper. You’re not. You’re driving the ball. Yesterday, he just got it. That’s what happens.”
“I feel like he’s really starting to get it,” said Vanderbilt. “The game’s slowing down for him.”
3. “We’ve got a lot of questions to answer, that’s why days matter.”
That’s a Calipari quote. There are a lot of questions about this team, and even more since Vanderbilt’s injury. Nor is he the only player injured. Freshman guard Jemarl Baker is nursing a knee injury and hasn’t been able to practice though he is expected back soon.
The data confirms that Kentucky really is the youngest team in college basketball for 2017-18. Wenyen Gabriel, a sophomore, is the only holdover from last year who saw significant playing time, and his minutes decreased down the stretch.
That doesn’t mean this team has holes. Calipari downplayed any worries about perimeter shooting, instead going back to his stock in trade. Defense. Forget the shooting and the scoring or any aspect to the offensive end of the floor. The points will come. This team should be a good defensive team. If it buys into that and is a good defensive team, then Calipari believes this will be a good team.
One more thing: About 38 minutes into the press conference, Calipari used the phrase “best version of themselves.”
That was when the season officially began.