BY Bill Crockett
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Regardless of fan expectation, confidence on the basketball court doesn’t occur overnight—it’s a process. On Saturday, No. 14 Kentucky (12-3, 3-0 SEC) made strides during a hard-fought 76-67 victory over visiting Alabama—UK’s 1,000th regular-season SEC win. Led by Immanuel Quickley’s hot shooting from deep, the ‘Cats gave the Tide a dose of their own medicine, knocking down 9-of-15 attempts from beyond the three-point arc.
Never one to mince words, John Calipari firmly believes that demonstrated performance holds the key for individual development. “I told each of them: You know what, you decided to come here and you knew this would be this way,” Calipari said. “So deal with it. I can’t do it for you. I can’t play for you. I can’t build your confidence.” Once an athlete loses self-confidence, however, it’s often a difficult obstacle for them to overcome—just ask EJ Montgomery.
Mired in a sophomore slump throughout much of the season, Montgomery hasn’t achieved preseason expectations. EJ believes he showed signs of improvement against Alabama though. “I think that I am breaking through my shell,” Montgomery rationalized. “Coach Calipari and I had a talk and he just wants me to go out there and have fun, and that is what I tried to do.” EJ tallied 8-points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and provided a much-needed presence underneath.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens recently imparted some sage advice for Calipari regarding self-assurance. Stevens told Cal that players who wanted to build confidence should focus on what’s really hard for them—and do it over and over and over. Calipari envisions Kahlil Whitney as a potential lockdown defender and finisher. Although a freakish athlete, Whitney seemingly just doesn’t possess a high basketball IQ—nor does he seem ready to compete at this level.
What jump-starts a player who lacks a natural feel for the game then? Nick Richards’ dramatic improvement immediately comes to mind. “The only way my team can get better is if each individual is improving,” Calipari offered. “It’s not like I’m trying to coach a better scheme or we run better stuff than everybody.” Richards swatted 5 shots and recorded yet another double-double with 13-points and 11 boards. Sometimes development requires time—junior Nick Richards anyone?
During his postgame press conference, Calipari pointed out that both Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards built their own confidence primarily through hard work and sheer determination. Adding merit to his comments, Calipari actually designed late-game out-of-bounds plays for both players. Richards missed, but Quickley drilled a clutch three-point dagger in the corner. Quickley finished with a team-high 19-points highlighted by his 5-of-6 shooting from long-range.
Brimming with confidence, Ashton Hagans flirted with a triple-double. Hagans scored 15-points, dished 9 assists, secured 9 rebounds, and displayed tremendous poise down the stretch. UK’s defensive-minded trio of guards terrorized ‘Bama’s three-point shooters and forced contested shots. “They’re hard to score on, did a better job defensively on us than anyone all year,” Alabama coach Nate Oats admitted. “We went 4 of 21 from three. A lot of that is because of their play.”
Calipari’s M.O. targets the best athletes available rather than pursuing less athletic shooters. Granted, Calipari’s defensive philosophy on the perimeter plays a huge role in that decision. Recently, many of these highly-touted recruits have lost confidence on the court primarily because of their inability to shoot the ball. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. Look for this trend to change in the near future—Cal’s top-ranked 2020 class features multiple pure shooters.