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State coach Ben Howland calls John Calipari “innovator, brilliant”

Ben Howland says Isaiah Briscoe is the “heart and soul” of UK’s team. (Vicky Graff Photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

Mississippi State coach Ben Howland thinks Kentucky not only is the best team in the Southeastern Conference, but also one of the “very best” in the county.

Mississippi State has won three straight SEC games to take a 3-1 league mark into tonight’s home game with Kentucky. The Bulldogs are also one of only a few teams to have a younger team than Kentucky, which starts four freshmen.

“I think John (Calipari) is an innovator. He’s always been doing things – I thought when he went to the Vance Walberg Dribble-Drive 10 years ago that was kind of out there. It ended up getting to the NBA. You see the influence in the NBA. He was one of the first coaches, maybe the first at the highest level, at the high-major level, to institute that. That was when he was at Memphis, obviously,” Howland said.

“Then this one-and-done recruiting, getting the best players and having a system where you come here and I can more or less guarantee you you’re going to be a first-round draft pick. Just look at the track record. What kid and what family doesn’t want to have the opportunity that some of these Kentucky kids have had since John’s arrival? He’s brilliant, not only as a coach but in a lot of other respects. But yeah, he does an incredible job.

“I think, though, the support guys – like, to me, when I think of Kentucky, the heart and soul of that team is (Isaiah) Briscoe. Briscoe, to me, is the guy that if you (asked) me, who am I most worried about? I’m worried about him. He makes it happen. He’s leading them in assists right now in conference games. They need a tough basket, he’s the guy that delivers. He’s just a winner. He makes everybody else better around him. You can’t say enough about Briscoe and what he does.

“(Derek) Willis is playing a very, very important role for them with his ability to shoot. They have good depth when you look at their team right now. Obviously, (Malik) Monk and (De’Aaron) Fox and Bam (Adebayo) are terrific. You can’t say enough about them. They’re all first-round draft picks like so many other former players.

“But you look at some of these other guys. I like (Wenyen) Gabriel and how hard he plays. He’s a guy that will keep getting better and be a really good player in the program. You look at (Dominique) Hawkins and what he does coming off the bench. They’ve got the big kid (Isaac Humphries) inside who comes off the bench is very important to them. They’ve got a very, very good team, and a team that is going to have a chance to – (Mychal) Mulder is very good, (Isaac) Humphries, they have depth. They’re going to make a big, long run this year.”

Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus said Monday that the Bulldogs play extremely hard and put pressure on opponents despite being so young.

“It’s going to be a big Tuesday night in the SEC on the road. We’ve had now opportunities to be on the road and test our youth. For us every time you step out you want to see where you are. We’ll see where we are on January 17. We hope we’re in a better place than we were a week ago when we were on the road (at Vanderbilt),” Justus said.

State has one of the SEC’s best players in Quinndary Weatherspoon. He’s averaging 17.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and shooting 49.7 percent from the field.

“He’s a guy that is able to provide maybe some stability for that group. You have a little bit of that with our seniors. So I would say that they’re a team that’s very similar to us. I would say he’s a guy who is a big part of their success and having that burden of success and failure is a big burden for college basketball players, especially at a young age. He seems to be handling it quite well,” Justus said.

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