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Friday’s exhibition game will not be the first time Kentucky Wesleyan Coach Drew Cooper has led a team against Kentucky. His Thomas More team lost to UK 103-61 in an exhibition game leading into the 2017-18 season.
Cooper recalled how success can be relative.
Of that Kentucky blowout victory four years ago, he said, “They had a couple breakdowns and we hit a couple shots. And they called a timeout, which kind of exuded to us. We just forced them to call a timeout!
“That was a remarkable moment for our college: a D-III school that just forced UK to call a timeout. That’s what teams like that strive for.”
With Kentucky Wesleyan an NCAA Division II school, the hope is for a form of competitiveness and satisfaction that extends beyond UK calling a timeout, Cooper said.
“What you want from your guys is to try to make it a basketball game,” he said.
That will include not being distracted by the Rupp Arena setting.
“Rupp Arena, that atmosphere, it makes it so hard to just calm your nerves and execute and kind of lose yourself in the competition,” Cooper said. “So, we’re talking a lot about that this week. Take the first 10 or 15 minutes of warm-ups to look around and try to adjust yourself because you’ve got to have your mind right to play a basketball game and compete.”
Why this game?
Cooper saluted UK for spreading the joy that comes from playing against the Wildcats in Rupp Arena. He noted how Kentucky has played exhibition games against such in-state schools as Transylvania, Centre, Kentucky State and Asbury.
“I appreciate the opportunity and admire the way it’s done in terms of keeping the experience within the state,” Cooper said. “We have so many Kentucky kids on our roster. This is an experience they’ll never forget.”
With Kentucky Wesleyan having last played an exhibition against UK when Tubby Smith was coach, Cooper figured Kentucky Wesleyan’s turn would be coming up soon.
In lobbying for the game, Cooper let UK know his team would play fundamental basketball.
“If I were them, I wouldn’t want to play a team that zones a lot,” he said. “We don’t zone a lot. I made sure they knew that.
“I’m not going to try to junk it up offensively or defensively. We’re a pretty straight-up team on both sides of the floor. I’m hoping that each team gets something out of it in terms of where we stand and what each team needs to work on going forward.”
Cooper conceded Kentucky’s superiority.
His hope is “we’re able to resist UK’s athleticism as much as possible with the things we teach fundamentally,” he said.
Little can be taken for granted.
“Running your offense, trying to get the ball reversed against that type of athleticism, it’s a challenge in any game you play,” the Kentucky Wesleyan coach said. “But when you’re going against players that are a couple inches taller and cover more ground more quickly than most of the competition you’ll see all year, even something that sounds as elementary as reverse the ball can become very, very difficult.”
Another objective is to create opportunities for uncontested shots,” Cooper said.
Like UK, Kentucky Wesleyan’s roster is a mix of returning players, transfers and freshmen.
The returnees are Wyatt Battaile (12.2 ppg), Jamil Wilson (8.3 ppg), Ben Sisson (4.9 ppg) and Sasha Sukhanov (6.2 ppg).
The transfers include Antonio Thomas (Bradley), A.J. Youngman (Idaho) and Jomel Boyd (Montana State Northern).
Cooper said he expects “great things” this season from freshman Eddie Jones.
Cooper scored 2,001 points as a player for Assumption College, which is in Worcester, Mass. His freshman season of 1995-96 was the year John Calipari led UMass to the Final Four, where the Minutemen lost to Kentucky 81-74 in the national semifinals.
No, Cooper said, Calipari did not recruit him. “I played D-II basketball,” he said.
Kentucky Wesleyan at No. 10 Kentucky
What: Preseason exhibition game
Where: Rupp Arena
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network