ATLANTA, Ga. — The postseason is when we really get to know Kentucky’s young basketball teams. Starting at the SEC Tournament, locker rooms are open on practice days and after games, meaning time and opportunity to get beneath the surface a bit on interviews with players and assistant coaches.
The longer the Wildcats play, the more we learn about them, and we’ve already learned plenty about the 2017-18 squad. As they prepare to play Kansas State in the Sweet 16, here are some of our favorite stories so far:
Bonded by struggle, Cats now urged, ‘Don’t drink the poison’: Think a Kentucky team full of freshmen and sophomores can’t bond like brothers? Read Wenyen Gabriel’s comments on how this team grew close by watching each individual fail and then figure it out together. The challenge now is to avoid thinking they’re too good to fail this week in Atlanta.
Hamidou Diallo comes out of nowhere to ignite the Cats: He’d been written off, forgotten, the subject of great dismay in the fan base that he remained in UK’s starting lineup despite his struggles. And then Diallo played the game of his life in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and his teammates mobbed him in the locker room.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander silences the Boise crowd: In a rare scene, Kentucky did not have the majority of the crowd at a neutral-site event. In fact, with such a short turnaround and far-flung locale for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, BBN was rather lightly represented in Boise. So fans of other teams and native Idahoans with tickets rooted hard for underdog Buffalo against UK. They thundered when the Bulls made a run at the Cats — but then SGA and his young teammates rose to the challenge and silenced that crowd.
The story behind those 7 a.m. Gilgeous-Alexander workouts: You’ve heard over and over about SGA taking the initiative to work out in the mornings before most of his teammates were out of bed. We talked to him and assistant coach Joel Justus — whose responsibility it was to meet him four days a week at the practice gym — about the extra work (and Kentucky environment) that made Gilgeous-Alexander a potential lottery pick. And how he’s made the Cats a contender.
Think you’re a super fan? Is your baby girl named Cali Perry? One lifelong Kentucky fan made the ultimate gesture to the team’s coach, naming his firstborn child after John Calipari. Sounds crazy, sure, but give that a read. It’s actually kind of heartwarming — and funny. Might Dad someday regret naming his daughter after a 59-year-old Italian man?
Big Problem. Is 7-footer Nick Richards’ crisis of confidence the final hurdle for UK? He has NBA size, athleticism and skills. He also has almost no confidence these days. Assistant coach (and post whisperer) Kenny Payne says Richards, the former McDonald’s All-American, is constantly battling self-doubt: “Am I good enough?” Payne constantly drills him with positive reinforcement and Calipari keeps Richards in the starting lineup, like Diallo, hoping that breakthrough is right around the corner.
Good Cal, Bad Cal: Players share moment they made Calipari proudest/maddest: There’s some good stuff in here, excellent insight into what it’s like to be coached by the Hall of Famer. Lots of descriptions of Calipari’s hair standing up and his face turning colors when he is angry. “He looks insane,” said Quade Green.
Jarred Vanderbilt updates on Jarred Vanderbilt updates: There have been so many Vando Watches this season. He missed the first 17 games, played the next 14 (where he became a rebounding machine) and has missed the last 5 with a left ankle injury. Here’s the very latest from Atlanta, where it won’t be a surprise to see Vanderbilt in uniform and available in an emergency. Will we see him play for UK again this year?
Remember when Wenyen Gabriel couldn’t make a shot? And then couldn’t miss? This roster has just one real “veteran” and it needed him to be a major factor. For a stretch this season, that wasn’t happening. Then came the SEC Tournament, when Gabriel went absolutely bonkers. He’s on a red-hot shooting streak and provides a huge lift in energy and effort — kind of like, say, Darius Miller in 2012?
Remember when Sacha Killeya-Jones was buried on the bench? The team’s other sophomore had really faded away heading into the postseason, playing an average of just five minutes for the last several regular-season games. Then Vanderbilt got hurt, SKJ got back in the rotation and he made the most of his moment, delivering a sequence of big dunks, blocks and rebounds that have energized the Cats.
The story behind mean-mugging, flexing freshman PJ Washington: Teammates give UK’s muscled-up power forward a hard time for all his preening and posing, but the attitude behind it has been big for the Cats in March. When not in foul trouble, he’s something of an unstoppable force in the paint — which Calipari was worried about without his “buddy ball” partner, Vanderbilt, on the floor with him.
Jemarl Baker is a sharpshooter Kentucky could’ve used — but there’s always next year: If you were worried that the injured freshman 3-point sniper would transfer after the season because of what is expected to be a crowded UK backcourt next season, think again. Baker shot that down and talked about his future in blue.
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