By LARRY VAUGHT
The Tyrese Maxey that dazzled everyone at Madison Square Garden was not the same freshman guard that Kentucky coach John Calipari had been seeing in practice — or at least that is what the UK coach said after the game.
Instead, Maxey’s 26-point performance on 7-for-12 shooting from the field, including 3-for-7 from 3-point range, and 9-for-10 at the foul line, was more like the player Calipari saw in high school.
” I have not seen it to this point. I keep it real. Like in practice, ‘Where’s the sniper I recruited?'” Calipari said. “He can’t make a jump shot. You’re not even making free throws. You’re missing layups. You’re playing timid. You’re sprinting when you should jog and you’re jogging when you should sprint. ”
Calipari knew there was a possible reason for that — he was having to go against Ashton Hagans, last year’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year, daily in practice.
“But the two days prior to this, all I talked about was, ‘You be that sniper. Play. We need you to get baskets for us.’ And I told him ‘I’m not going to start you. Let these guys get in and then you’re going to get in,'” Calipari said.
“But I’ve done this with Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander). I’ve done it with Jamal (Murray). I’ve done it with five or six other guys that I’ve coached. But I’m happy for him.
“He is the greatest kid. He’s like Jamal Murray with the smile. He smiles. Ashton steals the ball from him and he’s smiling. ‘What are you smiling about? Don’t smile. Be mad. Make a face. Do something.’ He just smiles. ‘I’m good, coach.’ He’s a great kid.”
And a heck of a player, too, that Calipari says plays with a lot of “courage” and did against the Spartans.
Calipari’s only complaint was that Maxey didn’t come into the game firing away immediately.
“Then he got into it and we started putting him in ball screens and doing different things that I’ve seen him do,” Calipari said.
It’s easier not going against Hagans. The coach said it is “ridiculously hard” to face Hagans and that times Maxey would be “demoralized” during practice.
“I keep telling him there’s no defender like (Hagans). If you can get baskets and keep pace to the game, you’re going to be fine. He was laughing after. ‘The game is a lot easier than our practice, going against that kid.’ I’m really happy for him,” Calipari said.
The Kentucky coach, though, knows Maxey can’t carry the scoring load by himself every game, especially now that teams have seen what he can do.
“We have to find a couple of different guys if we need a basket. I love the fact that we shot 39 percent today and won. Those are my games because we guarded. We started the second half, got sloppy guarding. Gave them a couple of baskets. And they’re good,” Calipari said.
“We just made a couple of plays late and they didn’t. My hope will be that we’re playing them again late (in the NCAA Tournament). Like, late, late, late. Like two of us left. It would be great because I’m a big fan of the program and their kids.”