Kentucky looking for answers after worst start in 94 years

Mike Weaver/Special to Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Kentucky’s win total shockingly stands at one.

Coach John Calipari insists his Wildcats can rebound and be a contender.

With 19 scheduled games remaining in this pandemic-shortened season, the Hall of Fame coach isn’t panicking about Kentucky’s 1-6 start, its worst since the 1926-27 squad began 1-8.

The combination of a challenging nonconference slate and growing pains on both ends of the floor by Calipari’s latest freshman-laden roster has translated into six consecutive losses. The skid is the longest in Calipari’s 12 seasons in Lexington, and Kentucky has fallen out of the Top 25 after starting the season ranked 10th.

“They’re fighting, they’re defending, they’re rebounding,” Calipari said Monday during a teleconference. “We turn it over too much, we’re working on that. The biggest thing, we miss a lot of shots, but our execution on offense has got to get better and we got time to continue to work on it.”

“But I haven’t lost any faith in the team. … Most of it is self-inflicted, but I’m happy they’re fighting.”

Kentucky’s stumble has sparked concerns in the Bluegrass state that college basketball’s winningest program could miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. At the other extreme, frustrated followers on social media and sports talk radio have questioned the caliber of a consensus No. 1 recruiting class, Calipari’s reliance on these highly touted freshmen, the “one-and-done” culture and even his coaching.

There’s no question a confluence of events has hit Kentucky hard.

While overhauling the Wildcats roster has been an annual ritual for Kentucky under Calipari, this year’s squad returned just one regular (injured forward Keion Brooks Jr.) and welcomed seven freshmen among 10 newcomers. But unlike other years where players spent the offseason transitioning to college and getting to know each other, pandemic precautions have limited contact and workouts and whacked early November tune-ups intended to build confidence and chemistry.

A smooth season-opening rout of Morehead State has given way to a slide during which the Wildcats have struggled against the likes of Richmond, Kansas and North Carolina, all of whom have either been ranked or have received Top 25 votes.

Kentucky has lacked cohesion and been unable to establish consistency in the losses.

The Wildcats are shooting just 41%, ranking 259th of 329 Division I teams, including 25% from beyond the arc. Kentucky has 24 more turnovers than opponents and has offered little defensive resistance. Archrival Louisville outscored the Wildcats 32-24 in the paint during Saturday’s 62-59 victory for Bluegrass bragging rights.

But as bad as the record is, there have been rays of hope.

The Wildcats have twice been a basket away from taking the lead late in games. Calipari is hopeful those shots will eventually start falling, once his team settles down and learns how to take care of the ball.

That will require the Wildcats to mature under increasing scrutiny – an apparent ongoing concern.

Brooks, a sophomore who has yet to play, handled postgame interviews following a 64-63 loss to Notre Dame in place of younger teammates who took the defeat hard. TV cameras caught freshman forward Cam’Ron Fletcher, possibly upset about a lack of playing time, showing his frustration on the bench. He later apologized on Twitter for the episode.

Calipari asked Fletcher to temporarily step away from the team for self-examination and made clear in his own series of tweets the program’s culture of changing and maturing individuals. Fletcher returned this week and Calipari said he has designated three players to handle attitude issues – but the coach did not identify them.

On the court, that leadership role falls to guard Davion Mintz, a graduate transfer from Creighton.

“Right now, it’s kind of a necessity for me to be that guy to come out there and be the voice and kind of talk on both sides of the floor,” said Mintz, who leads Kentucky with 19 assists and is third in scoring at 10.3 points per game.

“We all want to win,” he added. “None of us would have imagined this. We’ve just got to keep fighting.”

No one predicted this. And turning it around won’t be easy with an 18-game Southeastern Conference slate set to begin Saturday at Mississippi State.

The Wildcats have extra time to prepare for the Bulldogs with the postponement of Tuesday night’s SEC opener against South Carolina because of positive COVID-19 tests and protocols within the Gamecocks’ program.

MSU coach Ben Howland expects Kentucky to play much better than its record suggests when the teams meet this weekend.

“It’s not like they’re starting off with a bunch of cream puffs and building their way up,” Howland said. “I mean, they do the same thing every year. … They’re going to have success. We just hope that when we play them, we get a chance to beat them.”

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love commits to Arizona

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Caleb Love is now headed to Arizona.

The North Carolina transfer tweeted, less than a month after decommitting from Michigan, that he will play next season with the Wildcats.

“Caleb is a tremendously talented guard who has significant experience playing college basketball at a high level,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in a statement. “We look forward to helping Caleb grow his game at Arizona. And as we near the completion of the roster for the upcoming season, we feel great about how everything has come together. Now it’s time for the real work to start.”

A 6-foot-4 guard, Love averaged 14.6 points and 3.3 assists in three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 17.6 points in seven NCAA Tournament games, helping lead the Tar Heels to the 2022 national championship game.

Love entered the transfer portal after leading North Carolina with 73 3-pointers as a junior and initially committed to Michigan. He decommitted from the Wolverines earlier this month, reportedly due to an admissions issue involving academic credits.

Love narrowed his transfer targets to three schools before choosing to play at Arizona over Gonzaga and Texas.

Love will likely start on a team that will have dynamic perimeter players, including Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events


WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.

Marquette’s Prosper says he will stay in draft rather than returning to school

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

MILWAUKEE — Olivier-Maxence Prosper announced he is keeping his name under NBA draft consideration rather than returning to Marquette.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decision.

“Thank you Marquette nation, my coaches, my teammates and support staff for embracing me from day one,” Prosper said in an Instagram post. “My time at Marquette has been incredible. With that being said, I will remain in the 2023 NBA Draft. I’m excited for what comes next. On to the next chapter…”

Prosper had announced last month he was entering the draft. He still could have returned to school and maintained his college eligibility by withdrawing from the draft by May 31. Prosper’s announcement indicates he instead is going ahead with his plans to turn pro.

Prosper averaged 12.5 points and 4.7 rebounds last season while helping Marquette go 29-7 and win the Big East’s regular-season and tournament titles. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

He played two seasons at Marquette after transferring from Clemson, where he spent one season.

Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. returning for last season of eligibility

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Kevin McCullar Jr. said that he will return to Kansas for his final year of eligibility, likely rounding out a roster that could make the Jayhawks the preseason No. 1 next season.

McCullar transferred from Texas Tech to Kansas for last season, when he started 33 of 34 games and averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was also among the nation’s leaders in steals, and along with being selected to the Big 12’s all-defensive team, the 6-foot-6 forward was a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.

“To be able to play in front of the best fans in the country; to play for the best coach in the nation, I truly believe we have the pieces to hang another banner in the Phog,” McCullar said in announcing his return.

Along with McCullar, the Jayhawks return starters Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams from a team that went 28–8, won the Big 12 regular-season title and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Arkansas in the second round.

Perhaps more importantly, the Jayhawks landed Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, widely considered the best player in the portal, to anchor a lineup that was missing a true big man. They also grabbed former five-star prospect Arterio Morris, who left Texas, and Towson’s Nick Timberlake, who emerged last season as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.

The Jayhawks also have an elite recruiting class arriving that is headlined by five-star recruit Elmarko Jackson.

McCullar declared for the draft but, after getting feedback from scouts, decided to return. He was a redshirt senior last season, but he has another year of eligibility because part of his career was played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a big day for Kansas basketball,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “Kevin is not only a terrific player but a terrific teammate. He fit in so well in year one and we’re excited about what he’ll do with our program from a leadership standpoint.”

Clemson leading scorer Hall withdraws from NBA draft, returns to Tigers

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CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson leading scorer PJ Hall is returning to college after withdrawing from the NBA draft on Thursday.

The 6-foot-10 forward took part in the NBA combine and posted his decision to put off the pros on social media.

Hall led the Tigers with 15.3 points per game this past season. He also led the Tigers with 37 blocks, along with 5.7 rebounds. Hall helped Clemson finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference while posting a program-record 14 league wins.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Hall gained experience from going through the NBA’s combine that will help the team next season. “I’m counting on him and others to help lead a very talented group,” he said.

Hall was named to the all-ACC third team last season as the Tigers went 23-10.