This Kentucky basketball team is doing it differently. How do the freshmen feel about it?
Following Kentucky’s first NCAA Tournament victory in four years Friday night, the Wildcats brought a different look to the postgame podium.
Seated next to UK Coach John Calipari were three players. Senior Oscar Tshiebwe. Senior Jacob Toppin. And senior Antonio Reeves.
Three seniors? At Kentucky?
While those upperclassmen — 23, 22 and 22 years old, respectively — spoke, freshman guard Cason Wallace was back in the UK locker room giving his assessment of the Cats’ 61-53 victory over Providence.
Reeves had scored 22 points and hit some huge shots throughout the game.
“Tone being Tone,” Wallace said.
Tshiebwe had grabbed 25 rebounds, one shy of a modern-day NCAA Tournament record.
“Oscar being Oscar,” Wallace said.
Toppin had 18 points, six rebounds and played lockdown defense on former teammate Bryce Hopkins, the Friars’ best player.
“Jacob being Jacob,” Wallace said.
It was then pointed out that Wallace had two steals — his 60th and 61st of the season — to tie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Ashton Hagans on UK’s single-season list. He’s now five shy of John Wall’s record for the Calipari era.
“I’m getting steals — Cason being Cason,” he said, flashing a big smile.
And then Wallace glanced a few lockers down and spotted fellow freshman Chris Livingston.
“Chris — he’s out there playing hard,” he said. “Chris being Chris. Everybody played their part tonight.”
The freshman was correct. Everyone had played their part. But it’s not how Calipari has typically cast his key players during his 14 seasons at Kentucky. Not even close.
Three seniors at an NCAA Tournament postgame podium while the McDonald’s All-American freshmen sat in the back of the arena. That’s new. But that’s how this season has gone, and it appears that — if UK is to make a run through March Madness — that’s how it will continue to go.
Tshiebwe, Reeves and Toppin were Kentucky’s three leading scorers this season, just like they were Friday night. If you tally up the stats on Calipari’s previous 10 NCAA Tournament teams at UK, you’ll find that — taking the three leading scorers on each — 21 were freshmen, five were sophomores, two were juniors, one was a senior (Alex Poythress) and one was a graduate transfer (Kellan Grady). Tally up the three leading scorers on each of Calipari’s four Final Four teams here, and this is what you get: nine freshmen and three sophomores.
In a brief interview with the Herald-Leader outside the UK locker room Saturday — a day before Kentucky will face Kansas State — Calipari acknowledged the strangeness of seeing three seniors sitting next to him at a postgame press conference this time of year.
He also talked about the progress he’s seen from Wallace and Livingston over the course of this season.
“It’s been hard on ’em. It’s been hard,” Calipari said. “They’ve both grown. They’ve both had doubts. They’ve both questioned themselves and their position and what they had to do. But they just kept fighting. So, I’m happy for them.”
Accepting a new role
Wallace and Livingston both said all of the right things on their way to Lexington.
They both knew they would be surrounded by other talented players — older players — and they knew this UK roster wouldn’t be constructed quite the same as most of the previous ones in the Calipari era. They both said they were ready to embrace the roles Calipari envisioned for them. But saying is often easier than doing, and finding a way to blend into being a role player after years of being “the guy” is a tough transition.
“It was very difficult,” Livingston said. “It was very hard, especially early on in the season when I wasn’t playing that much. Trying to figure things out.”
Livingston — considered a top-five recruit in his class for most of his high school career — didn’t play more than 20 minutes in a game until the 10th game of Kentucky’s season. And — even though he was starting — it took another month or so to fully establish himself as a “major minutes” player on this team.
For a guy who averaged 31.1 points, 15.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4.7 steals and 4.3 blocks per game as a high school junior, being the fifth or sixth or seventh option was like playing a whole new sport. On Saturday, he called embracing that transition more of a “mental thing” that needed to happen over time.
“He’s gotten out of his own head,” Toppin said. “It was really him vs. himself, and he’s gotten out of that. He’s more dialed in on what this team needs him to do, and it’s helped him a lot.”
Why the early struggles to figure things out?
“That was him focusing or listening to all of the clutter around him,” Toppin said. “But he’s gotten away from that. He’s gotten dialed into this team, and it’s helped — not just him, but it’s helped this team.”
Livingston said that — even though he knew he would have to change his game when he got to Lexington — he had been so focused on scoring as a high school star that it was tough to just suddenly shake the instinct. He said, in those early games, Calipari would give him the quick hook after a breakdown on defense or a failure to block out an opponent. That had never happened before he got to college.
“I knew that he was going to hold me to a high standard when it came to that,” he said. “When it came to my effort, and things like that. So I just knew that I had to be better in that department.”
Now, he’s Mr. Energy for these Wildcats, flying all over the court for loose balls and rebounds. Tshiebwe has pointed out recently that Livingston has been playing so hard that he’s actually taken rebounds away from him — Kentucky’s rebound king. The freshman did it again in Friday night’s game. If he had let Tshiebwe have that board, his teammate would have tied an NCAA record, instead of coming up one rebound short.
“Hey man, probably selfish on my end,” Livingston said with a laugh.
As selfless as it gets, more like it. That’s what he’s supposed to do on this team.
Wallace was in a similar spot. By the end of his high school and AAU career, he was an offensive catalyst for whatever team he was playing for. He was a great facilitator, sure, but he could often also score at will, drive to the basket and find ways to get points. Now? As the only active point guard on the roster, he’s tasked — at 19 years old — with being more of a steadying presence for a team that still holds Final Four aspirations. He’s also often looked upon to be the Cats’ defensive stopper on the perimeter.
Their stat lines in their NCAA Tournament debuts Friday night …
Wallace: seven points, four rebounds, five assists and two steals in 39 minutes.
Livingston: six points and six rebounds in 34 minutes.
Solid at best. Certainly not spectacular. But, like has been the case for much of this season, Kentucky probably doesn’t win the game without Wallace’s ability to shoulder the load at the point guard spot — just one turnover — or Livingston’s spark all over the floor. And both came up with big plays in big moments.
“It’s been big time,” Toppin said. “They’re freshmen, and they’re taking on their roles really well. Not a lot of freshmen can do what they’re doing and be coached by Coach Cal. It’s big time for them, and it shows just how strong mentally they are.”
Wallace is still projected as an NBA lottery pick and will surely be off to the pros after this season ends. Livingston will have a tougher decision to make. He’s not on any NBA Draft boards and could certainly benefit from a return to Kentucky, where he’d likely find a much bigger role in year two. He said Saturday that he hasn’t given much thought to what he’ll do next. He did say that — when it’s time to make that decision — he’ll be the one to make it.
And whatever happens next, both of these star freshmen have learned some lessons.
“When I committed to Kentucky, I knew that my role — there were going to be a lot of sacrifices that needed to be made,” Livingston said. “Especially if I wanted to be a part of a team that’s winning. So I already knew that I was going to have to come in and make a lot of sacrifices, and I wasn’t going to be able to play my full game that I’m used to playing.
“But I’ve accepted that, and I just want to be a star in my role for this team, so we can make a run and just be great together.”
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