John Calipari’s dunk helmet sums up this Kentucky basketball team. ‘Everyone’s fearless.’

UK Athletics

Practices for the 2022-23 college basketball season officially began last week, and it didn’t take long for Kentucky’s players to start having a little bit of fun on the court.

The Wildcats are generally ranked among the top five teams nationally on the preseason lists, bolstered by several key returnees and the annual influx of new talent that is a hallmark of John Calipari’s teams.

Two things we already know about this UK squad, from the four August exhibition games in the Bahamas: athleticism is abundant, and Calipari wants them to block a ton of shots.

Combine those attributes, and the return of the “dunk helmet” was pretty much inevitable.

Calipari has featured the award at various points throughout his tenure at Kentucky. The gist is simple: one player dunks on another in practice, and the guy who did the dunking gets to place a UK football helmet on the teammate who got posterized.

These Cats weren’t even a week into practice before Calipari dusted off the protective headgear.

“Three good practices so far this week,” the UK coach tweeted Thursday night. “The young guys are finding out how hard it is to compete every possession against college players … but they are fighting! We also started handing out “The Helmet Award.” If you get dunked on, your teammate gets to make you wear the helmet!”

Calipari’s tweet was accompanied by two photos. One showed UK senior Jacob Toppin ceremoniously placing a blue Kentucky football helmet on the head of freshman Adou Thiero. The other featured junior Lance Ware smiling at freshman Ugonna Onyenso, who was wearing the helmet and giving a double thumbs up to the camera.

Toppin spoke to the Herald-Leader the following morning and added a little context to the latest season of the Kentucky dunk helmet.

The UK veteran confirmed that the rules remain the same: whoever completes a contested dunk places the helmet on the posterized player. Toppin clarified, however, that he had actually landed two such slams the day before, dunking on both Thiero and Onyenso, while Ware had dunked on Onyenso during Wednesday’s practice. There was no photo op after that one, so Ware got his opportunity to bestow Onyenso with the helmet the following day.

“It’s cool. It’s adding a little more fun to the game,” Toppin said of the helmet ceremony. “Just find times to have fun, and that’s part of it.”

Looking up and down this Kentucky roster, just about every UK player could realistically be on either side of the dunk helmet. And from what the veterans are saying, there’s no shame if you end up on the wrong end of the poster.

To paraphrase Willie Cauley-Stein — inarguably one of the best dunkers and shot-blockers of the Calipari era — if you attempt to block shots with any regularity, you’re going to get dunked on eventually. Toppin listened to that statement and nodded along with the sentiment.

“That’s all of us,” he said. “We’re all going to contest shots. And that’s what I like about this team — everyone’s fearless. Nobody cares about the oohs and aahs. Everyone just wants to win the game. Obviously, if you’re going to contest shots, you’re not going to block every shot. So, once or twice you may get dunked on. And it’s just, ‘Next play’ mentality. That’s what everyone has. That’s really a good thing for this team.”

Reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe agreed. The Kentucky big man was obviously extraordinary on the court last season, but protecting the rim has never been his forte. At least, not in the way that former UK centers like Cauley-Stein, Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel have dominated the paint defensively.

Tshiebwe acknowledges this, and he says becoming a more versatile defender has been a major part of his focus this offseason. He also said that — while he’s not expecting to wear a helmet at any point this season — he won’t be shying away from the opportunity.

“I’m not going to say, ‘I’m not going to jump.’ I’m going to jump with everything to block a shot,” Tshiebwe told the Herald-Leader. “But I don’t think they’re going to get me. I’m going to block them all the time. They’ve tried a couple of times. I keep blocking them.”

Cats bring the energy

The early reviews of this Kentucky team from two of its top returning players were overwhelmingly positive.

“Practice has been great,” Tshiebwe said. “We’re having a lot of fun. A lot of fun. I love how we are competing against each other. We are fighting. You should never come here and say, ‘I’m going to get mine and go.’ No. You come here and say, ‘I am willing to help this team.’ You have to be willing to do anything to help this team.”

Tshiebwe and Toppin are both seeing that trait in their teammates, especially the younger ones.

Chris Livingston and Cason Wallace both came to Lexington as five-star recruits, McDonald’s All-Americans, and projected first-round picks in next year’s NBA Draft. They’ve also both impressed older teammates — going back to UK’s pre-Bahamas practices — with their ability to adapt to their new surroundings and willingness to play more complementary roles than they were accustomed to in high school.

Of course, this Kentucky team will be heavy on older players, especially by Calipari-era standards. Tshiebwe and Toppin are among five Wildcats that are entering their fourth or fifth year on a college campus. (Sahvir Wheeler, CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves are the others). UK also has junior Lance Ware and sophomore Daimion Collins, giving the team seven scholarship players with college experience.

Early on, it’s proven to be a terrific mix, allowing newcomers to lean on veterans for advice on and off the court.

This team also had plenty of time together before last week’s practices even began. They had the four Bahamas games — and the practices that preceded that trip — along with some workouts earlier this fall.

Toppin said there’s been a clear difference between those initial workouts and the start of “real” practices last week. Now, the Cats are doing a lot more learning, and Calipari is digging in on what he wants this team to be. The earlier workouts, according to Toppin, focused more on shooting drills and relatively loose pickup games. The competition level ramped up last week.

“Now we’re playing a lot of 3-on-3, 4-on-4, 5-on-5 — and we’re really going at each other,” he said. “And we’re really being competitive, because we want to get each other better every day.

“It’s been really exciting. Everyone had great energy this week. … Everyone has a spirit to them that is positive, so that’s a good thing. And everyone’s locked in to just getting better every day. So it’s been a good start to this.”

Asked who had impressed him the most so far, Toppin mentioned Livingston first.

“I said Chris, because right now we’re both going at each other in practice,” Toppin explained a bit later. “And he’s making me work. But I’m also making him work. That’s good. We want to make each other better, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re fighting — not physically — but we’re fighting each other. We’re being physical with each other.”

Look at any other position, and you’re likely to see similar battles. Toppin agreed that this Kentucky team appears to be at least two deep at every spot on the roster, with several players capable of playing multiple positions, depending on the situation and the opponent.

For the time being, that kind of versatility and depth is going to generate some highly competitive practice situations. A month from now, it’ll be a problem for opponents to deal with.

“That’s going to be very scary for a lot of teams,” Toppin said. “Because, for certain college basketball teams, you have a great starting five. But then when the bench comes in, there’s like a dip in the talent level or the competitive level. But, for us, anybody on the bench could be in the starting five. So it’s going to be really hard for a lot of teams to stay in the game with us. Because we have five more players who could come in the game and really dominate the game — just like the starting five did.

“Everyone’s doing good in their own way. I’m really liking this team.”

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