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Brandon Knight

From top left, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight and John Wall have been four of UK coach John Calipari's recent one-and-done successes. (All photos courtesy Associated Press)

From top left, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight and John Wall have been four of UK coach John Calipari’s recent one-and-done successes. (All photos courtesy Associated Press)

DALLAS (AP) — Everyone has an opinion of John Calipari.  He’s a pariah to some, successful only because of his ability to attract one-and-done stars destined for the NBA. They point to him as a scourge of college basketball, arguing that he’s complicit — responsible, even — in stripping “student” from student-athletes.

Then there are those who see him as an elite coach, the architect of successful programs at UMass, Memphis and now Kentucky. He’s churned out players who are making millions in the pros, and it is hard to argue that he’s let any of them down.

“He does get the best guys, but he challenges them and pushes them to be who they are,” said New Orleans Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans, who played one season for Calipari at Memphis.
“That’s the thing about playing for him,” Evans said. “You’ve got to be willing to take on the challenge, and take on him getting on you every day in practice. Some guys can handle it, some guys can’t. Before you get there, he’ll tell you that.”

Those who accept the challenge are usually rewarded.  His group at Memphis headlined by Derrick Rose reached the national title game in 2008, though the trip was later vacated. Another troupe of young stars led by Anthony Davis beat Kansas to win Kentucky’s eighth national championship in 2012.

And the latest group of fabulous freshmen has the Wildcats back in the Final Four, knocking off three of the top four seeds in the Midwest Region along the way. They’ll start five first-year players Saturday against Wisconsin, headlined by twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and power forward Julius Randle, a potential lottery pick in the June draft.

“He’s tough on us,” said Randle, when asked to describe what it’s like to play for Calipari. “You may not like it some days, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s best for us.”

Calipari is hardly unique. Ohio State’s Thad Matta has churned out five one-and-dones since 2006, and Rick Barnes of Texas has produced four. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has lost a couple, and could lose standout Jabari Parker makes his stay-or-go decision.

It’s just that Calipari is the biggest offender — or opportunist. Since 2006, he’s sent 13 one-and-done players to the NBA. They’ve combined to make more than $181 million in salary alone. And if all of them play through their current contracts, that total would surpass $460 million — nearly equaling the gross domestic product of the island nation of Tonga — even with several of them playing out relatively paltry rookie contracts.

That figure doesn’t include endorsement deals, either. Throw in the millions they’re paid for hawking sneakers, apparel and everything else, and the total closes in on a billion.

“He put a lot of responsibility on us at a young age,” said Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, who played for Calipari at Kentucky. “That basically prepared us for the next level.”

It’s important to note that Calipari doesn’t agree with the current NBA rules, which require that players be a year removed from high school before entering the draft. If it were up to him, he said last week, it would be a two-year waiting period.

“But it’s between the NBA and the players’ association. Has nothing to do with me or the NCAA,” Calipari said. “So I just think we’re all playing the hand we’re dealt. Kids are going on to the league from us and performing. And I’m proud of that. Would I like to have had them for four years? Yes. But I also like what’s happened for them and their families.”

Many rival coaches have a similar viewpoint.

“I think when student-athletes pick a school and go to college, they go to have the best chance to have the best life,” offered Kansas coach Bill Self, who had Andrew Wiggins become his third one-and-done player when the freshman declared for the draft this week.

Of course, there are still plenty of detractors. Final Four counterpart Bo Ryan appeared to take a veiled jab at Calipari this week when he said: “What I like about the Wisconsin fans is they understand these are student-athletes who actually are here for the purpose of an education first and playing ball second. That’s what I believe makes them really endearing.”

It’s not the first time that Calipari has heard that argument.

“We’ve had a 3.0 grade-point average for the last four seasons,” he said, “and they go to class. It’s not Internet, correspondence. They go to class, for four seasons. Brandon Knight was a straight-A student. Alex Poythress is a straight-A student. They all go to school.”

Besides, if college is truly about preparing kids for a career, what happens on the hardwood at Kentucky amounts to graduate-level work in basketball. Calipari is simply the professor.

“There were guys who went there before me who thought they were going to be ready for the NBA,” Evans explained, “but he’d tell them, ‘You’re not ready.’”

And if they are ready? Well, the NBA’s former rookie of the year remembers his conversation with Calipari after the final game of his freshman season.

“He said, ‘Hey, you’re a good player. I enjoyed having you. Good luck on the next level,’” Evans said. “That was pretty much it.”

Milwaukee Bucks' Brandon Knight (11) puts up a shot against New Orleans Pelicans' Brian Roberts (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Knight (11) puts up a shot against New Orleans Pelicans’ Brian Roberts (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Long after the end of practice, the sound of a bouncing basketball echoed down the hall and up the stairs from the Milwaukee Bucks practice court.

It is Brandon Knight again, coach Larry Drew’s point guard pupil doing the basketball equivalent of staying late after school to study. He’s certainly not giving up in an injury-filled, challenging first season in Milwaukee.

“With Brandon, first of all, every night he steps out on the floor, I know he’s going to give me 110 percent effort,” Drew said.

At 9-43, the Bucks had already clinched a losing campaign before the All-Star break. They will be the only team in the NBA without double-digit wins when the season resumes Tuesday at home against the Orlando Magic.

No choice: Knight must remain positive. The point guard position is a leadership position by default, even for a third-year pro who’s just 22 and still learning.

“It’s a type of leadership where you’ve got to be positive no matter what,” Knight said.

It is part of the maturation of Knight, a self-described “quiet guy” who would much rather be that teammate who led by example. In that respect, the extra time in the gym — he’s usually one of the last players to leave the court — isn’t surprising.

But being more vocal was something he had to pick up in his one college season at Kentucky, and then in his two years with the Detroit Pistons. Now he has more responsibility in Milwaukee, both off and on the court.

Knight missed a few games at the start of the season with a sore right hamstring, one of numerous injuries that have hampered Bucks players all season. Since then, he’s been a lineup mainstay. Knight is averaging a career-best and team-high 16.7 points, along with 4.9 assists.

“He attacks the basket the same (ways) he did in Detroit, but he’s carrying more of a load here with all their injuries,” New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams said last week.

Knight is shooting 34 percent (69 of 199) from 3-point range while also averaging 3.5 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-3 guard can look fearless when he lowers his shoulder and drives the lane.

“Something that I had to grow into going into this level,” Knight said. “I had to be stronger, that you’ve got to go in, you’ve got to seek contact … That’s something that I think I’ve shown this year and gotten better at.

The distributor role of the point guard job is a work in progress. For instance, Knight had four assists and five turnovers on Feb. 10 against Boston before notching nine assists without a turnover two days later against the Pelicans. He scored 22 each time.

“You can’t really have a night where you’re not on your game, because you can be exposed on any night,” Knight said. “You’ve got to be able to adapt from game to game and year to year. Something in your game has to improve.”

The Bucks early on seemed to have trouble meshing, which might be in large part due to all the injuries that led to an inconsistent lineup. Since then, young players including Knight have had to step more to the forefront.

A former NBA point guard himself, Drew said Knight is still soaking up knowledge, along with the intangibles that a point guard picks up just through experience.

“Things that you just can’t go out there and teach him,” Drew said. “There are things that happen within the flow, and point guards have to be able to instinctively make those plays.”

Derek Willis handles the ball in the win over Vanderbilt. (Victoria Graff photo/all rights reserved)

Derek Willis handles the ball in the win over Vanderbilt. (Victoria Graff photo/all rights reserved)

By LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky coach John Calipari still thinks Derek Willis has a chance to find a key role on this team.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well, but I liked his post feed,” said Calipari about Willis’ play at Vanderbilt Saturday. “I like his size on the court. He hadn’t been shooting the ball well in practice, probably because he hadn’t been playing and he didn’t think it was important. Well, now he found out it was important. But I told him, I said, ‘You and Jarrod, it’s important that you guys are ready.’ I had told him for a week, ‘I’m going to try to put you in games if they’re smothering Julius and he’s kicking it out. If guys are missing, I’m putting you in. Get in there and make shots.’ His teammates are even telling him when they throw it to him, ‘Shoot it. We know you can shoot. Shoot it.’ ”

Willis is also a player — along with Dominique Hawkins — that Calipari knows has been putting in late-night work on his shot.

“We’re getting to where they understand. Look, I told the story – I had Tyreke Evans, and Tyreke really struggled early, now. I’m just telling you. We’re like, ‘One year? We’re gonna have this kid for four years.’ I mean, it was ugly. And it started getting better and it started getting better. We put the ball in his hand, but he knew, ‘Man, I got a long way to go.’ He slept in the practice facility. We had a lounge that, he had a lounge chair that he put a pillow and a blanket, and two to three times a week, he slept in the practice facility. Now, granted, the housing was seven blocks away. This housing is 12 steps,” the UK coach said.

“He still didn’t want to walk seven blocks. He said, ‘I’ll sleep here. I got to get up at 8 anyway.’ So guys have to be that committed and driven, and when you are, you don’t let go of the rope. Someone comes in to take it, you worked too hard. ‘I invested too much. You’re not taking this from me. You ain’t takin’ this from me. I don’t care how hard you play, how much you foul. It doesn’t matter. You’re not taking it.’ If you’re invested. If you’re not invested, only doing what you’re being told to do, you basically say, ‘No, no. Don’t go crazy. Just take it. You’re losing your mind. Here, take it.’ And so guys got to be more invested in this, and they’re beginning to be.”

Of course, that could be harder for Willis or any player to do now that classes have started back.

“Brandon (Knight) did it. Brandon did it. You know, how much do you have to play video games? Really? Got to get those two hours of video in, or how are you going to live. You got to be on your phone three hours reading everything, I mean, that’s tough. I mean, I cannot give up my video games. So I mean, there are things you got to look at and say, ‘What am I gonna give up to make sure?’” Calipari said.

“All I know is, Brandon was a straight-A student, and when I walked in this building at 12 o’clock at night or 11 o’clock at night from recruiting, he was in there. And he’s up there scoring 30. Think about it. And he’s skinnier than anybody we have on this team. So again, it’s just the Breakfast Club (from 2012), those kind of things, but it cannot come from me. Because if you drag them, they become exhausted. If they do it themselves, they become inspired. Now you can encourage it, but that’s the best you can do. If it comes from them, they’re inspired. If it comes from me, ‘He’s killing me! Dying! Oh, my gosh!’ ”

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Freshman guard Andrew Harrison was one of 45 players to earn recognition as a member of the watch list of candidates for the 2014 Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award in was announced Tuesday. The annual honor, named for Hall of Famer and former Boston Celtic Bob Cousy, recognizes the top point guards in men’s college basketball. The list was created by a committee of well-respected media members and influential people within college basketball from around the country.

“The Bob Cousy Award promotes the values of leadership, determination, and teamwork, all skills needed not only on the hardwood but also in life,” said Ken Kaufman, Chair of the Bob Cousy Award and former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). “Mr. Cousy exemplified all of these traits, and continues to be an inspiration to players on and off the court.”

Harrison is a 6-6 guard from Richmond, Texas. As a senior in high school he averaged 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game while directing Travis High to a state championship. He came to Kentucky rated as the top point guard in the country by all three major recruiting services and the third-best prospect in the country by ESPNU Recruiting. Scout and Rivals both ranked him as the fifth-best overall prospect.

The watch list of candidates will be narrowed down to a final 20 in early February, then final five by early March. A premier Selection Committee has been appointed by the Hall of Fame to review the candidates in contention for the nation’s top collegiate point guard award. This committee is made up of top college basketball personnel including members of the media, head coaches, media relations contacts and Hall of Famers. The Cousy Award winner will be presented the award on Championship Monday in Dallas at the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 Announcement and Press Conference.

Kentucky’s John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague were all finalists for the award. Previous winners of the Bob Cousy Award have included Jameer Nelson (St. Joseph’s), Raymond Felton (North Carolina), Dee Brown (Illinois), Acie Law (Texas A & M), DJ Augustin (Texas), Ty Lawson (North Carolina), Greivis Vasquez (Maryland), Kemba Walker (Connecticut), Kendall Marshall (North Carolina) and Trey Burke (Michigan).

By LARRY VAUGHT

Sometimes pressure can overwhelm a player, even a star player. Andrew Harrison understands that, but the top-rated point guard in the 2013 recruiting class insists that won’t happen to him.

He knows the legacy of potent point guards Kentucky coach John Calipari has produced — Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague — before the string ended last year. However, he’s confident he’s more than equal to the challenge of once again giving Calipari a star point guard and needed team leader.

“I am getting used to the pressure. That is pretty much why you work hard every day,” the 6-foot-6 Harrison said. “I definitely like those expectations on me, and that’s what I am going to try and do. I am going to try to get my teammates involved and make the best situation for them and play defense. I don’t mind the pressure.

“All the kids here are used to having really big accolades and used to being best players in their states. I am sure they are not worried about it. Being ranked preseason No. 1, though, doesn’t mean anything. You have to embrace it and win. Besides, when you have the best scoring guard (Aaron Harrison) and the best power forward (Julius Randle) and what I believe the best small forward in James (Young), it makes it easier for you to make plays. My job is not going to be that hard at all.”

Harrison likes the way Calipari has defined his expectations of him.

“Coach Calipari is really straightforward and blunt. He doesn’t guarantee you anything. He talked to me about toughness. I feel like I can bring that to the team,” Harrison said. “It is just being mentally tough and knowing that whatever he says, he is trying to help you no matter what he says. I feel like my dad helped me with that. He was always really hard on me and Aaron. I feel like I can take anything from any coach in the right way and use it to improve.”

He averaged 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists as a senior at Travis High School in Richmond, Texas, for the Class 5A state champions. He also averaged 12.5 points, 6.0 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals as a junior.

It was no surprise when Harrison and his twin brother, Aaron, both decided to play for Kentucky. “We always knew we would go to the same school, but we both liked Kentucky equally. It’s not like he wanted to go to one place and me another. We felt like it was best for us,” Andrew Harrison said.

Harrison is known as an intense, no-nonsense competitor who can get into the lane and create for teammates. What makes him different from other point guards?

“My size, my fearlessness and just my ability to win,” said Harrison, who insists he could also play shooting guard if needed.

He also considers himself a lock-down defender, something Kentucky lacked at point guard last year after the departure of Teague for the NBA.

“I don’t want anybody to ever score off me. That’s what I live off of. If somebody scores off you, that is something somebody can write about, so that is why I try to lock everybody down that I go against,” Harrison said.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Who has been John Calipari’s best point guard? Since there have been so many, guess how former UK point guard Brandon Knight answered Monday night?

“We’re going to all feel like it’s ourself. I think that’s why we’re at the level that we’re at right now,” Knight said. “We’re all confident. But it’s a lot of great guards that he’s coached. You can go down the line. One of them (Derrick Rose) has been NBA MVP already, so it’s a lot of stiff competition, and not only just through the guards that Caliapri has put out, but throughout the NBA overall.

“I think the point guard position is the deepest position by far. So, I mean, I’m going to be confident in myself and think that I’m the best, but there are a lot of great guards that coach Cal has helped mature their game.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Former Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight says it is a “no-brainer” for him to pick Kentucky to beat Louisville at Rupp Arena this season.

I know it’s going to be crazy here. It’s going to be jam-packed. A lot of talking and a lot of competition,” said Knight after Monday’s UK alumni game. “The last two national championships will be here. I think that’s what the players here — not that they don’t live to win a national championship — that’s the game that you play your hardest. You make sure that you bring a win back to Lexington, because you are going to have to hear about it the rest of the year if you don’t.

“I think guys are really tuned in and prepared for that game. Not only for basketball, but for any sport. When you know you are playing the University of Louisville, for some reason everybody comes out to support. Whether you are a volleyball fan or a softball fan, everybody comes out to support for at least that one game just to make sure we are behind each other 100 percent. You have to make sure you don’t let them get wins from us.”

And my guess is that UK football coach Mark Stoops and his players certainly would agree going into their own showdown with Louisville Saturday.

 

By LARRY VAUGHT

I asked Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy, who knows John Calipari and the UK program well, what his biggest concern about the Wildcats would be going into the season. Enjoy his expert analysis.

“I think it starts with the Harrison brothers and the challenge that Andrew has to master the point guard position. We have seen the success and failure of John’s teams over the last six or seven season is really correlated to how long it takes the point guard to master the position,” DeCourcy said.

“The 2009 Memphis team floundered until he figured out Tyreke Evans was his point guard. The 2011 UK team  struggled until Brandon Knight got a handle on what he brought and John got a handle on what worked for Brandon. That is big part of it. How does it work for him (Andrew Harrison)?

“Last season failed because nobody was able to master the position. Andrew’s responsibility and play and his ability to master that position is the No. 1 thing for this team. I have seen him play, but have not been around him that much. People want to see the (Harrison) twins connect to their teammates.

“It didn’t help that they were not available to connect in the summer when they weren’t at Kentucky, but they can cover a lot of what they missed before UK’s season gets going. I just think those guys are the key. For Aaron (Harrison), this is a team that does not have much proven shooting. They need some to win. If he can make shots, it will really help the team, too.”

DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Pistons have made another move in their busy offseason, acquiring Brandon Jennings as they desperately try to end their four-year postseason drought. Detroit landed the point guard from the Milwaukee Bucks for point guard Brandon Knight and two prospects, according to a person familiar with the deal.

The person, who spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because the trade hasn’t been announced, said Jennings has agreed to a $24 million, three-year contract with the Pistons. The person said Detroit will also give up seldom-used Ukrainian center Viacheslav Kravtsov and forward Khris Middleton in the deal.
Detroit has been active this offseason, signing free agents Josh Smith, Chauncey Billups and Luigi Datome along with bringing back Will Bynum.

The Pistons signed Billups in part to mentor Knight, but have chosen to replace him with Jennings. They’re in a win-now mode, and must figure Jennings gives them a better shot to have success this season than Knight, who hasn’t shown he can be a reliable point guard.

Instead of keeping a player who might not have wanted to stay, the Bucks are adding to their depth with another young point guard and two players. Detroit drafted Knight eighth overall in 2011 out of Kentucky. He averaged 13.1 points, 3.9 assists and 2.7 turnovers.

UK's Ryan Harrow and Coach John Calipari talk during the loss to Texas A&M. (Clay Jackson photo)

UK’s Ryan Harrow and Coach John Calipari talk during the loss to Texas A&M. (Clay Jackson photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

NASHVILLE — Kentucky guards Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin have frustrated UK fans with their inconsistency at times this season and befuddled even coach John Calipari at times.

However, Tennessee guard Skylar McBee says the trio may have had no chance to succeed this year considering who they had to follow.

McBee, a senior, played against John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, both first-round draft picks and current NBA stalwarts, three years ago. Two years ago he went against Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins, both draft picks and both on NBA roster. Last year UK had Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb, two more NBA draft picks, in the backcourt.

“I think their guards are very talented this year because they have talented guards every year,” said McBee after Tennessee beat Mississippi State Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. “But I think these guards this year are a different style of guard. They are more slow down, run the offense than the guards I played against before.

“You had John Wall and Eric Bledsoe that liked to get it out and push in transition all the time. You have some guys this year that who really do a good job slowing down, running offense and fitting in that system. They are not the defensive players that Liggins or Teague were or the scorers that Knight and Lamb were. They are different, but that doesn’t mean they are not good.”

LSU junior Andre Stringer, who had 16 points and three assists in a win over Georgia Thursday, did not play against Wall and Bledsoe. But he competed against Knight, Liggins, Lamb and Teague.

“First off, they are still good players. I think all those guards have a lot of different games,” Stringer said. “The point guard (Harrow) this year, I think Teague was more of a run the team guy and Harrow is more of a scoring guard. I think Lamb was a shooter, and can’t leave him. He kind of reminds me of Mays some.

“I think they had five pros on the court at one time in the past few years. That is what is so different about the Kentucky team now. They don’t have that. They have guys that aren’t as talented as those other guys, so they have to work harder.”

McBee said he assumed Harrow and Goodwin knew the comparisons were coming this year.

“Those are big shoes to fill, and that’s part of it playing at a big school like Kentucky with the success it has had,” McBee said. “They have had a lot of talent come through the years and it is big shoes to fill.  They are doing a good job and as long as they play well in the SEC Tournament, they should be fine going into the NCAA. We play in a strong league with a bunch of good teams. They are not bad players at all. I am not sure why people might think that. They are a very good set of guards. They just are not the guards they have had the last three years, but how many teams have had guards like they did those three years.”

Stringer thinks the past comparisons are unfair to UK’s guards, too.

“Those guys have hard shoes to fill because of guys that came before them and paved the way and made Kentucky what they are,” Stringer said. “Calipari is a great coach, but it is hard to come behind those guys. They were all pros.

“I don’t think it was pressure on them that they can’t handle. I think guys at the collegiate level know what to do. They have been playing ball since they were kids, so there is not any undue pressure to come in and star. They knew they had to come in and work and what was expected of them. But they are not bad players.”

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