Hamidou Diallo almost left Kentucky after one semester for the NBA before deciding to stay at UK. Now he’s being counted on as UK’s most explosive — and one of its most experienced players even though he’s yet to play in a reguarl-season game — this season.
No one doubts his athleticism. He had the best numbers of any Wildcat at the preseason combine for NBA scouts.
But his outside shooting and playmaking were suspect in high school. He struggled to make outside shots playing for coach John Calipari on Team USA during the summer.
Former UK All-American Mike Pratt is now the analyst for the UK Radio Network. He watched Diallo practice and work out with the team a lot the second semester last season because even though he was being redshirted, Diallo still traveled with the team.
“The kid is a freak of an athlete. He can run and dunk. But what I am looking to see develop from watching practice all of last year, I question whether he can hit a jumper,” Pratt said. “But he can take it in transition, get putback baskets and score that way playing to his strengths.
“The other night (in an exhibition game) he tried to do too much. Made some crazy passes. He’s got to figure that out and stay within himself. I think you will hear that from Calipari early this year. Some of these guys try to do too much.”
Pratt said Diallo’s athleticism makes him unique, something that should benefit UK this season. But there are still areas he has to address to improve the way NBA personnel will be looking for.
“You are not going to find a lot better NBA guys at his size athletically but he has to develop the ability to read situations. When to take it to the rim. When to shoot it. When to pass,” Pratt said. “There is so much in learning how to play the game and utilize your athletic balance.
“Why he is still doing that he has to develop a feel for the game while still using his athletic skills. It sounds easy, but it’s not.”
Pratt still “likes” Kentucky to win the SEC but also thinks the league is “trending upward” with experienced players at many schools along with talented freshmen. He values the experience both Florida and Texas A&M have compared to Kentucky and notes that both teams have players that sat out last season that should help both teams.
“I think Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas will all be much better, too. Some like Vanderbilt, but I don’t know about that,” Pratt said. “I think the league could get five to seven teams in the NCAA. That means Kentucky could lose games on the road in league play and people will react by saying they can’t believe UK lost to that team. But Kentucky has a good chance to lose some of those games just like other teams do.”
He views UK as a top 10 preseason team but has Michigan State and Arizona 1-2 in his own poll. Duke, Villanova, Kansas and Louisville are 3-6 with UK 7th followed by Wichita State, West Virginia and North Carolina.
“I think there will be a hodge lodge of good teams in college basketball this year but not a great team,” Pratt said. “It could be a surprise who makes deep runs in the NCAA. But that can make for a fun season and why for Kentucky, it’s big for a guy like Diallo to get to where he can be that guy to elevate a team with his play.”
* * *
Receiver Keenan Burton admits now he didn’t truly appreciate what was happening when he was part of three straight Kentucky teams that won bowl games from 2006-08 for coach Rich Brooks.
“We knew if we put it all together we could be special. But we never really saw it all put together until it just kind of unfolded,” Burton, who was one of about 100 players back at UK last weekend for a reunion of those bowl teams, said. “But that was coach Brooks’ plan the whole time. You look up and we had five wins, then we were going to a bowl for the first time in a long time. Then you see it. I think I just needed time to pass to realize what we did.”
That’s the type of message Burton and others shared with the current Cats before they went out and rallied for a 29-26 win over Tennessee — something no Brooks’ team could do in seven years at UK.
“I think this win means a lot as far as getting the program back on the right track and in consistent bowl games,” senior linebacker Courtney Love said. “Having all those former players back definitely added more fuel. Those guys want to see us win and be better than what they were — and they were pretty god.
“We want to follow in their footsteps and just be better. That’s something they really preached to us. They want us to be better and break their records and go out and be the best team Kentucky has seen in a while. I think that is just phenomenal. It speaks to how good their character is.”
Love is a special student-athlete. No surprise to me that the passion of the former UK players resonated with him.
But what about his teammates? How did they view what the former Cats had to say?
“Everybody bought in and understood what they were talking about. It’s just amazing to listen to them and what they could teach us,” Love said.
The late touchdown drive led by quarterback Stephen Johnson after he returned to the game following a shoulder injury changed the whole view of UK football. If the Cats had lost to Tennessee, the fan base would have been disillusioned. Now UK was bowl eligible in October.
“It gets us going back in the direction we started out. Last week (against Mississippi State) was definitely a bump in the road and we responded. Coach told us it wasn’t pretty but we kept going and playing. It was an awesome experience beating Tennessee and sets up the rest of the season,” Love said.
* * *
Former Kentucky star Makayla Epps is going to have a big weekend Dec. 15-16.
First, she’ll graduate from UK on Dec. 15. She at Kentucky this semester finishing her degree. Rather than go overseas to play after her first WNBA season with Chicago, she opted to stay in Kentucky to finish her degree. Her plan remains to go overseas in January to play until the WNBA season starts again.
On Dec. 16 she will have her high school jersey retired at Marion County. She led the Knights to a 39-0 record and 2013 state high school championship — the first time a team had won the title with a perfect record since 1984. She was named Miss Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year after averaging 23 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 4.3 steals per gam. She finished her prep career with over 3,300 points.
Her jersey will be retired during a doubleheader against Campbellsville.
“It’s going to be quite a weekend,” Angie Mattingly, Epps’ mother, said. “We’re really excited about both events that weekend.”
* * *
Kentucky junior McKenzie Watson helped win not only a high school championship at Assumption in Louisville, but also a national title. She said she was “trained to win” before she got to Kentucky.
However, she never considered playing volleyball at Louisville even though she’s from a family of Louisville fans. She said former Assumption star Jackie Napper’s career at UK helped influence her decision to play for UK. Same with Stephanie Klefot, another Assumption standout who played at UK.
“I remember watching Jackie Napper when I was little and watching Steph. That kind of set the precedent for me to be here. I wanted to make an impact on this program and had looked up to Jackie since I was a little girl. Knowing how close it was to home was a big influence, too,” Watson said.
“I had a step-sister and step-brother that went here. I had been to Lexington so many times and just loved the atmosphere. I knew it was the the right fit and I’ve slowly converted my family over to Kentucky, too.”
Watson has been in Kentucky’s playing rotation since she arrived. Whether she’s on the court or not, she’s talking — most of the time it is non-stop chatter.
“I think that is just how I have always been. I am a Chatty Cathy on and off the court. I just like to give information in any way I can and help my teammates. I have been like that since I was a little,” she said.
Kentucky coach Craig Skinner says Watson has the knack to see things before they develop on the court.
“She is so tough, composed, gritty. She exemplifies what gritty is. Players like her motivate you to coach,” Skinner said.
Watson says her older sister — who stopped playing volleyball in high school — got her started playing.
“She would train me. She was four years ahead of me so I would go and practice with her team. It was great,” Watson said.
That attitude seems to be prevalent on this team that has more depth than any UK volleyball team ever. Yet the players get along great.
“We really do love each other and have each other’s back. We celebrate when other people do well. It’s very hard to do at times for people who are not role players to celebrate when someone gets a good dig at your position but that is what this team brings and we all celebrate for each other no matter what. We just all want to succeed and that makes for a good team,” Watson said.
* * *
Looking for a different idea for a birthday party for a child age 12 or under. Kentucky women’s basketball offers a birthday package for $125 that includes tickets for up to 10 children and five adults (additional children are $9, adults $4) and meal vouchers and posters for the children. The birthday child gets a special gift as well as an announcement and scoreboard recognition during the game.
Call the UK ticket office at 800-928-2287 to schedule a party or for more information.
* * *
Quote of the Week: “I held my own. I got a few buckets on him, blocked a few shots and got a couple of rebounds over him. It was a pretty good experience playing against him except he always called a foul when you did block his shot,” Kentucky freshman Nick Richards on playing against former UK star DeMarcus Cousins during the summer.
Quote of the Week 2: “I read nothing that you write. I am so sorry. I don’t read a blog. If I hear something bad about me it’s coming from the street or something like that. Somebody might flip me off or whatever. I don’t know, whatever. I don’t worry about that. I really don’t,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran on how he handles criticism.
Quote of the Week 3: “He is a dog. That’s all you can say. For him to go down and come back and win us the game, he’s a dog and I respect him for that. He has that it in him. That’s what we see in him. We got a stop for him and history after he scored. We owed him that,” UK linebacker Josh Allen on quarterback Stephen Johnson’s winning touchdown against Tennessee.
Former UK All-American says Hamidou Diallo, right, has to get a better feel for the game to go with his unique athleticism. (Vicky Graff Photo)