Former Kentucky basketball players Cameron Mills, Jeff Sheppard and Jared Prickett took a road trip to Louisville earlier this season to see their former UK coach, Rick Pitino, send his Louisville team against Utah Valley State and coach Mark Pope, another one of his former players at Kentucky.
But the reason the group went might surprise you.
“We were behind Pope’s bench and we saw Rex (Chapman) sitting closer to coach P (Pitino) and then Derek (Anderson) was sitting with his fiancee with the wealthy people. Winston (Bennett) was behind Pope’s bench like we were,” said Mills. “Our goal was to constantly yell to get a technical and try to get him (Pope) in trouble.
Mills still remembers a Christmas day practice his freshman year when the team was split into groups. When his group finished lifting weights, older teammates persuaded him to ask Pitino if they could go home.
“You can imagine what he said after I interrupted practice,” Mills laughed and said. “Later we went to the Hyatt for Christmas dinner and Anthony (Epps) yelled, ‘Coach, Cam wants to know when we can go home?’ That’s how we are. So we want him (Pope) to win but it’s not as much to support him as it is to laugh.”
At halftime, all the former Cats got together for a picture on the court. After the game, Pitino invited them to join him.
“Jeff and I talk about once a week about various things,” Mills said. “Jared I see once or twice a year. I have seen Winston at various autograph sessions or fundraisers. I run into Rex once or twice a year and he seemed to be doing great. Pope? I had not seen him since he was an assistant coach at Georgia and came to Rupp Arena.”
Who tells the best stories in that group?
“I kind of think I do, but I don’t know,” Mills said. “Mark probably tells the best stories to be honest. I think I have had all my teammates on my radio show (from 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday on FoxSports 1580 AM), and a couple of them twice. Mark had just got the Utah Valley job when I had him on. I was trying to do a serious interview and be professional.
“He completely ignored the question I asked and he said, ‘Cam, remember how scared we were of coach Pitino?’ Then he just took off. The fun thing is there are so many things I don’t remember until they tell stories and are right. At the time none of stories were that funny because they involved us getting yelled at a lot. Now they are hysterical because of how scared and fearful we were of coach Pitino and of losing.”
Pitino’s players at UK did have that respectful fear of him. Mills’ memories also made me wonder how former players who were so loyal to him feel now after the off-court issues he’s had at Louisville?
“That’s a hard question. He did a great job taking over at Kentucky in 1989,” Mills said. “We view him as our coach. He’s always been our coach. It’s difficult because he is at Louisville and we see things like him flipping off the crowd on the way out of Rupp Arena (in December) and the issue a couple of years ago and now the prostitution scandal. It’s hard to watch but I don’t think any of us wish any ill will on him because we know what we owe him.
“I understand every UK fan’s frustration and how some feel about him but I wish they could understand for me that I got to be a Wildcat because of him. He said I could walk on. He had no reason to do that. He said, ‘It’s your dream, you can walk on. The only difference between you and (Tony) Delk is that your parents have to pay for you to be here.’
“He treated me like Tony Delk. He yelled at me more than Delk, (Ron) Mercer and Anderson. Because he did, I did more than I ever thought I could at Kentucky. I owe him a great deal. Me and ex-players are not going to jump in and root against Louisville all the time because he was still our coach and that won’t change.”
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There was no way Kentucky coach John Calipari or anyone on his staff or team would criticize the officiating after Saturday’s 89-62 win at South Carolina even if official Doug Sirmons did hit Calipari with two technicals and eject him just 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
“I have never been proud of a team. They are now empowered. They’ve proven that they don’t need me and I love it,” Calipari said on Twitter after the game. He was not available to the media.
Since Calipari has been at Kentucky I’ve never seen him so upset with any official. It took five players and assistant coach Tony Barbee to keep him away from Sirmons. What was even stranger was that the technicals came after a foul was called on South Carolina.
Buzz Peterson, a former head coach at Tennessee and several other schools, had no trouble indicating on Twitter how he felt about Sirmons.
“What Doug Sirmons did today is absolutely embarrassing to college officiating. He has a short fuse and coaches for years have complained,” Peterson tweeted.
He followed that with this: “To toss a coach out in less than 3 minutes is Ridiculous. I hope Jerry Tipton (of the Lexington Herald-Leader) digs into the history of Doug Sirmons officiating. #shortfuse”
Finally, he tweeted: “This is an expensive day for Doug Sirmons. Either private jets or a couple of body guards from here out.”
Hopefully Peterson is wrong about that and Kentucky’s win certainly took the sting out of Calipari’s ejection. What will be interesting now is whether Sirmons works any more UK games. My guess is no.
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Linebacker coach Andy Buh came to Kentucky after working as defensive coordinator at California and turned down a chance to leave UK for another job despite UK’s 5-7 record last season.
One reason might have been UK’s recruiting success and Buh said the record was not as important as the process.
“It is a two-year process for most of us. A lot of kids make decision based on the whole experience. This staff does a great job getting to know families and generating relationships,” Buh said.
“We make it so it is real hard to turn away from us. We create a bond. All these kids we have been recruiting for two or three years. I have been talking to 2017 recruits for a year now. I’ve had dozens of them on campus.”
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Freshman quarterback Gunnar Hoak of Ohio chose Kentucky in part because Shannon Dawson was the offensive coordinator. However, before he got to UK in January, the Cats had a new offensive coordinator in Eddie Gran and new quarterback coach in Darrin Hinshaw.
But Hoak never wavered on his commitment to UK because Gran and Hinshaw had recruited him at Cincinnati.
“I stayed in touch with coach Stoops through whole process of letting coach Dawson go. I knew they were going to get coach Hinshaw from Cincinnati,” Hoak said. “Having him that recruited me from Cincinnati was really a relief to know a guy coming in would know me and I would know him.”
He said he knew well before the hire was announced that Gran and Hinshaw were coming to UK.
“It was supposed to stay on the down low, but I knew it,” Hoak, “I knew him and coach Gran pretty well at Cincy. I went to spring practices there and stayed in touch with them. Obviously he (Hinshaw) recruited (UK sophomore quarterback) Drew (Barker), too. But coach Hinshaw is a good guy and definitely knows what he is talking about.”
Ironically, Kentucky’s first game next season is against Southern Mississippi and new offensive coordinator — Shannon Dawson.
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Freshman linebacker Kash Daniel of Paintsville and freshman guard Maci Morris of Bell County have forged a special friendship at Kentucky due to their eastern Kentucky roots.
Daniel told how Morris’ roommate, Makenzie Can of Anderson County, reacted while they were all watching the national championship football game and Morris said something about soup beans.
“’What in the world are soup beans?’ she said. I thought I everybody knew what soup beans were,” Daniel said. “But she called them pinto beans back home.”
Morris worked her way into coach Matthew Mitchell’s starting lineup. Daniel, who enrolled at UK in January, would like to do the same for coach Mark Stoops next season.
“I am really proud of Maci. I see her every night on WLEX or ABC 36 scoring 12 or 15 points a game,” Daniel said. “She still can’t guard me, though. I don’t care what she says. She really can’t. Her or McKenize can’t. I have proposed a 2-on-2 basketball game but I don’t think coach Stoops would like that too much.”
So who would Daniel, who tore a rim down last year dunking for his high school team, have for his partner?
“If I got to pick, I would probably try to be friends with Jamal Murray or somebody,” Daniel joked.
Then he turned serious about Morris.
“I am really proud of what Maci has done. I followed her high school career and seeing what she has done this year just makes me really proud of her and I know her dad and family is proud. To see her come from Bell County and see her dominate in the SEC like that it gives me hope maybe being a freshman somehow I can contribute in the SEC. Maci is going to do nothing but great things here on out.”
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Hillcrest Academy coach Kyle Weaver brought his team from Arizona to Kentucky to play three times this season and showcase 7-foot DeAndre Ayton, the nation’s top-ranked junior.
‘This is our third time. These gyms are amazing. I wish we had this in Arizona. This is a basketball state, a mecca. I enjoy coming out here. Again, these gyms are nicer than D-2 (Division II) where I played at (in college). You have a great crowd here (at Pulaski County) at noon and our game was supposed to be at 3 and got moved up. I appreciate all these fans coming out,” Weaver said after his team played in Somerset.
Ayton got into foul trouble in the final game and spent almost half the game on the bench. However, that did not curb his enthusiasm.
“You never see that kid getting down. Doesn’t matter if he is in the game or not, he is motivated and pushing guys to be better,” Weaver said. “I appreciate that as a coach.
“A lot of guys when they get in foul trouble or calls not their way or not playing their best, they will go on the sidelines and pout. DeAndre sits in and keeps guys motivated. When you have a guy like that who is legitimately No. 1 player in the nation motivating our guys, our guys get enthusiastic about it to play harder.”
Ayton has a scholarship offer from Kentucky and admits Duke, Kansas and UK are his top three schools. He said it was “cool and laid back” to play in Kentucky so many times and that he really liked the “gyms and fans” in the state.
Ayton also said his bench demeanor at Pulaski County was just him doing what he always does.
“You have to keep the intensity up. You are like a player/coach,” Ayton said.
Ayton figures to get plenty of coaching this offseason. Weaver says they plan a lot of training and work on his guard skills.
Ayton is good 3-point shooter. He can handle and pass the ball. He wants to improve on those skills.
“We are going to work on his guard skills. Stuff he needs to improve on. Work more in post, put on weight, get in the weight room. Work to make him more of a stretch 1 through 5 honestly,” Weaver said.
However, the Hillcrest coach knows for Ayton’s future, he has to do one other thing.
“He has got to be able to go in the post and play. At the end of the day, he is 7-1 and needs to get in the post and score the basketball,” Weaver said. “He can do all those things on the court, but he has to be able to get inside, post up and score.”
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PHOTO CAPTION: Kentucky coach John Calipari had to be restrained after getting called for two technical fouls at South Carolina. Former college coach Buzz Peterson called the early ejection of Calipari by official Doug Sirmons "Ridiculous" on Twitter. (Vicky Graff Photo)