Alabama can’t afford for Ulis to have double-double

Tyler Ulis will be a focal point of Alabama's defense tonight. (Vicky Graff Photo)

Tyler Ulis will be a focal point of Alabama’s defense tonight. (Vicky Graff Photo)

NASHVILLE — Alabama coach Avery Johnson was proud of the way his team played in an 81-73 win over Mississippi Thursday night in the SEC Tournament that sets up a game tonight with Kentucky that the Tide needs to win to have any chance to make the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s what Johnson had to say after the game.

COACH JOHNSON: We’re excited. We had an opportunity to win this game. I’m so proud of our team. These two guys that are here on the podium, Retin Obasohan got off to a slow start but had a terrific second half; and on the other hand, Riley Norris helped ignite our offense when we were struggling with some of his three-point shooting.

So I’m just proud of our guys. They played hard. Obviously, you guys saw the game plan. We were going to try to do the best that we could do on Moody. We basically said, we know he’s going to score 20 points, but we’ve got to try to deal with the other guys. And I’m proud of the way we defended the other guys.
So a terrific victory for our team, and I’m just proud of our defensive effort. But as you can see, whether it’s at the free-throw line and with some of the decisions we made, we still have some improvement. So great victory for the Crimson Tide.

Q. Coach, can you talk about the job that Edwards and Coleman did tonight, not only in scoring, but they seemed to do a little bit of everything.
COACH JOHNSON: Absolutely. We’ve been just consistently talking about what type of team are we going to be when Retin is not in the game? And believe it or not, it was kind of a blessing in disguise when he got foul trouble. This is the second game, I think, in the last two weeks that he’s gotten in foul trouble. Didn’t play many minutes in the first half. And we were able to be on the lead with him on the bench. And it’s because of guys like Justin and Arthur taking and making big shots for us.
So when we shoot the three like we shot it tonight, it definitely helps our offense, especially when Retin is struggling a little bit offensively.

Q. Coach, I know you were not happy with the rebounding against Georgia on the road in the last regular season game, but the team tonight stayed close to the Rebels on the glass. Just talk about the shot blocking. Donta Hall with five. But 12 as a team, and Ole Miss did not record a blocked shot. But really, your interior defense really seemed to be the difference tonight.
COACH JOHNSON: Absolutely. We put so much of an emphasis on rebounding. We’ve had so many different rebounding drills. Everyone — I refer it to everyone I’ve learned in my career. Just making contact, and also it’s just a part of will. You’ve got to will yourself to want to rebound.
Our big guys did a tremendous job on Saiz. He embarrassed us the first game of SEC play at Ole Miss, and our big guys like Jimmie Taylor and Donta Hall and Shannon and Riley, those guys stepped up because that was a big part of our game plan was to try to slow him down.

Q. Coach, looking ahead to the Kentucky game, the last time you played Kentucky, you were very complimentary about Tyler Ulis and how he was able to play against you guys. How do you anticipate changing that tomorrow? How do you look to stop that again?
COACH JOHNSON: We’ve just got to try to stay in front of him, contain him, and we can’t afford for him to have a double double. Got to try to take something away, which is easily said than done. Fortunately for us, we’ve played him twice. Played him first game, 36- hour game after we played Ole Miss at home, and then we went in the Rupp Arena, and they got the best of us.
So we know what we’re dealing with. We feel we’re a little bit different team now. At least we played in a situation where they had a pretty large home crowd. They’ll have the same thing tomorrow from what I understand. So at least my guys won’t get shocked by what they’re going to see with their fans tomorrow.
Q. Coach, talk about the confidence level of the team. Even though you lost to Georgia, you seemed to play better, better balanced scoring. The defensive effort tonight, particularly in the second half, was very impressive. Just comment on the confidence that this team over the last couple games.
COACH JOHNSON: For some strange reason, when we’ve been counted out, we are so much of a better team. I could just see it in practice. We had a grueling practice on Thursday. I mean, a grueling practice because we were all in on this first game because, if you can win the first game, you never know what’s going to happen. And our guys responded.
There were some things that were said in practice that needed to be said. We had some long film sessions. I think we probably had the longest film session of the year on Monday. But our guys responded, and we got some good carryover.
But now we’re in a situation where we’ve got to get back to the hotel, get some rest, and come back out and play again and, hopefully, play the game the right way, the way we know we can play it, and don’t beat ourselves.

Q. Coach, with Retin getting two fouls early, I thought sometimes in the postseason you’ll see guys step up. Talk about the 15 minutes you got out of Brandon Austin tonight.
COACH JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, Brandon, even though he only scored 5 points, he was our team player of the game because his energy in the first half was tremendous. The way he got in there, blocked shots — again, like you said, early we had 12 blocked shots.
He had a big one for us tonight. He hadn’t been getting a lot of minutes, been mainly playing on our scout team.
So I thought about coming into the game, that I wanted to give him a chance to get some minutes, and you never know what can happen in it a tournament. The team probably was preparing a little bit more for other guys since he wasn’t in the rotation. But fortunately, he came out, made a three, was really involved, great energy. So we’re going to need some more of that energy on tomorrow night.

Alabama players ready to give Kentucky best shot

Isaiah Briscoe will try to get inside to score against Alabama again tonight. (Vicky Graff Photo)

Isaiah Briscoe will try to get inside to score against Alabama again tonight. (Vicky Graff Photo)

NASHVILLE — Alabama ousted Mississippi 81-73 Thursday night in the SEC Tournament to earn a third chance to play Kentucky tonight in the SEC quarterfinals.

Kentucky has already beat Alabama twice this year. So what makes Alabama players think this time can be different?

“We’re a better team, and we’ve also matured. With that comes just having the experience playing in this league. So Kentucky’s a good team, and they do what they do, but at the same time, I got complete faith in our coaching staff and teammates that we have more than enough to go out there and give them our best shot,” Alabama guard Retin Obasohan, who had 17 points Thursday night.

Riley Norris had 16 points and went for 4-for-7 on 3-point shots and also pulled down 11 rebounds.

“We’re starting to play a lot better. I know Kentucky is a really great team, give them all the respect. We’re going to go in and scout and do the best we can,” Norris said.

“Our coaching staff always prepares us really well. So we’re just going to go in and do our best tomorrow night.”

Alabama’s size, length helps oust Mississippi

NASHVILLE — Here is part of what Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy had to say Thursday night after his team lost 81-73 to Alabama, which will play Kentucky Friday night, despite 39 points from Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody.

Q. Coach Kennedy, Alabama finished with 12 blocks as a team. Donta Hall with 5. They seemed to really affect your team’s game inside. Just talk about that in the second half.
COACH KENNEDY: I thought it was huge. Donta Hall did that to us in Game 1. He’s got a great presence at the basket with his ability to block shots. They really started pressing up on Moody as he was making plays. So driving lanes were available. We drove, and he did a good job of limiting any points in the paint for us.

I thought that Sebastian Saiz, I thought Marcanvis Hymon at the end made a couple plays, but Saiz was pretty much neutralized with their size and length at the basket.

Q. Coach, 42% in the first half, 32% in the second half. What were some of the troubles that you were seeing?
COACH KENNEDY: As Moody was just saying, they run a defense called double fist, which is kind of a two-three and they’re going to come trap the ball. So they were doing that obviously to get it out of his hands. And I honestly thought we had pretty clean looks.

I thought Gielo and Brooks had looks on the wings, cleaner looks than Riley Norris was making, cleaner looks than Arthur, and we just didn’t make plays.

They go 12 for 24 from three, a tribute to them. We go 11 for 34. And ultimately, again, at this time of year, all teams are going to play hard. We’re plus eight on the glass. We didn’t really turn it over. We’re battling. Our inability to make a play when we needed one was ultimately the difference.

Q. Andy, you’ve talked a lot about Moody’s impact, but it’s pretty rare in the SEC Tournament to see a situation where a guy fouls out and every fan in the building, no matter their allegiance, stands up and applauds the effort.
COACH KENNEDY: He’s been a special player for us. I’ve said that a lot here at the end. You try not to heap too much praise on one of your current players while you’re in the grind, but now that we’re done and you look back, I mean, obviously, he’s the most dynamic playmaker in the history of our program, most certainly in my ten years.

But I think what he’s been able to do in leading this team to back-to-back 20-win seasons and last year’s run in the NCAA Tournament, obviously, he’s been a tremendous playmaker for us, and I appreciate the fans acknowledging that in his last game here.

Ryan Lemond has “meant the world” to godson Zach Hodskins

Zach Hodskins and Ryan Lemond. (Larry Vaught/Verizon Photo)

Zach Hodskins and Ryan Lemond. (Larry Vaught/Verizon Photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

NASHVILLE — Zach Hodskins says there is only one Ryan Lemond.

“He’s always the goofy Ryan Lemond,” said Hodskins. “That’s the only guy I have ever known, but I love him.”

Hodskins is a junior walk-on guard on the Florida basketball team that beat Arkansas 68-61 here Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. But he’s not just any walk-on player.

He was born without the lower half of his left arm but caught the eye of then Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey while playing high school basketball in Georgia and got an invitation from then Florida coach Billy Donovan to walk on the team.

Lemond, a well-known sports personality with Kentucky Sports Radio, knew Hodskins and his family when they all lived in Owensboro. He is Hodskins’ godfather and one of his biggest supporters.

Often Lemond has talked about the impact Hodskins has had on his life. But Thursday Hodskins explain that has gone both ways.

“He has meant the world to me. He’s like a second father and one of my biggest supporters,” Hodskins, a public relations major who hopes to do motivational speaking about his religion, said. “From the time I was born, he’s been around. I remember growing up and him and his son being there always.”

Hodskins and his family moved to Georgia but the friendship never went away. Lemond, his wife Amanda and their three sons are all close to the Florida sophomore and he says Lemond manages to see him play once or twice each year other than the SEC Tournament.

He even got seats on the second row for Amanda and Ryan Lemond Thursday.

“You just ask around and get all the tickets you can,” Hodskins said.

He did laugh when ask about Ryan Lemond’s halftime appearances at most UK home games in Rupp Arena where he oversees a fan shooting contest.

“I don’t know why they even have him down there,” Hodskins said in the locker room loud out for Lemond to hear.

However, there’s no doubt he’s sincere about his feelings for Ryan Lemond and his family.

“I know his three boys look up to me. I want them to. I want to be there for them just like he was always there for me,” Hodskins said.

He won’t get to spend much time with Lemond, or his own parents, during Florida’s stay here as the Gators face Texas A&M Friday at 1 p.m. However, he says he’s not above a prank call to KSR’s show Friday which airs from 10 a.m. to noon at the Tin Roof in Nashville.

“My dad and I have called in before with fake names,” Hodskins said. “I might do it tomorrow. I just can’t tell you the name I use.”

SEC Tournament always a fun week for me

Today I got to see long-time friend Rick Stansbury, the assistant coach at Texas A&M. He's a Meade County, Ky., native. (Ryan Lemond/Verizon Photo)

Today I got to see long-time friend Rick Stansbury, the assistant coach at Texas A&M. He’s a Meade County, Ky., native. (Ryan Lemond/Verizon Photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

NASHVILLE — There’s just nothing better than being at the Southeastern Conference Tournament when it is in Nashville.

Kentucky fans have already taken over Nashville and the Cats don’t play until Friday night. Look anywhere around Bridgestone Arena, and blue is the dominant color. Look anywhere in the downtown area, and blue is the dominant color.

It has made for a fun week for me already.

Since Tuesday, I have been talking UK basketball and SEC Tournament with Tim Estes of WPBK (102.9 FM) in Stanford at 7:15 each morning and Doug Fain of WNJK (105.9 FM) in Nicholasville at 7:30 and will do that through Monday.

I have also been posting as normal on vaughtsviews.com as well as working on next week’s column for 30 papers across the state. Also check out www.lex18.com for stories I post there.

Plus, I am providing features for four terrific newspapers — Henderson Gleaner, Somerset Commonwealth-Journal, Ashland Daily Independent and Glasgow Daily Times.

This weekend I get to join the Cameron Mills Show on FoxSportsRadio 1580 out of Lexington and then will be with Ryan Lemond for Sunday Morning Sports Talk on WLAP (630 AM) out of Lexington from 9-10:30 a.m. If UK is playing in Sunday’s title game, the show will air live from Tin Roof at 316 Broadway in downtown Nashville. That is also where the Mills show will be broadcasting from Saturday morning from 10 to noon.

I’ve already heard from a lot of Kentucky fans here, and hope to see a lot more, as well as a lot of other people that I often see only during SEC Tournament time. Tonight I am going to hear J.D. Shelburne perform at 7:30 CST at Puckett’s Grocery in downtown Nashville.

And remember you can always follow me on Twitter @vaughtsviews.com.

Grind Session national championship has 24 of nation’s top 100 players

Josh Jackson (Caleb Lowndes/CJ Correspondent)

Josh Jackson (Caleb Lowndes/CJ Correspondent)

“The Grind Session” is excited to announce the field for their national championship in Lawrence, Kansas at Free State High School.  The field includes the top teams and players in the US and Canada. First, the teams are broken down and that is followed by highlighting the top players participating in the event.  We feel that with 24 of the top 100 players in the nation participating that the event will be a must-see for fans across the nation and Canada.  The brackets for the event will be following soon.  Stay tuned and please check out thegrindsession.com and tanagersports.com

 

Athlete Institute, CAN

Athlete Institute features 7 foot big man Thon Maker, who is considered to be one of the top players in the 2016 class (Former no.1 player). As versatile as a guard, he has picked up offers from every major school in the country, but is being most heavily recruited by Arizona State, Kansas, and Indiana. He returns to play for the Bears this season with his brother, Matur, a 6’10’’ junior who is beginning to pick up offers. AI also features seniors Nikola Djogo, a Notre Dame signee, and Cole Long, a UMBC commit. The Bears lost point guard Jamal Murray due to his reclassification into the 2015 class, he is now playing for Coach John Calipari at Kentucky.

Prolific Prep, CA
Prolific Prep will look to 6’8’’ senior Josh Jackson (No. 1 by Rivals), who is down to his final three schools (Kansas, Arizona, and Michigan State), to lead their squad. Seniors Vance Jackson (No. 49 by ESPN, UConn signee) and Devon Daniels (Utah signee) will be effective from the wing. The Crew expects to see juniors Abu Kigab, a Canada native holding offers from Kansas and USC, and Ira Lee (No. 34, offers include Arizona, California, Texas…) also contribute significant minutes. Sophomore Khaleem Bennett and freshman point guard Pierre Crockrell will also be players to keep an eye on.

Sunrise Christian, KS
Sunrise is a team stacked with mostly seniors, and they return senior point guard Roman Young who will be looked upon to provide leadership for the Buffaloes. A team of many transfers, the Buffaloes roster features Oklahoma signee Kameron McGusty (No. 37 by 247Sports). Every player on this year’s roster has drawn Division 1 interest and most have picked up offers. Among the list, Terrell Turner’s offers include Rutgers, Minnesota, and Georgia. Center Isiah Jasey, is ranked No. 32 (ESPN) in the 2017 class and has offers from Kansas and UCLA. Junior Bryan Trimble and senior Rakym Felder, also with many offers, will look to contribute in the backcourt for the Buffaloes. Sunrise alum Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn was a part of the 2015 Michigan State Final Four team.  The Buffaloes have also picked up Valdir Manuel from Angola.

22ft Academy, SC
22ft Academy of South Carolina features Sedee Keita (No. 78 by ESPN), a South Carolina signee, and Eli Wright (No. 94 by Rivals), a Mississippi State signee. Keita is a consistent threat on defense where he easily guards at any position and moves like a guard laterally. Wright, who is dominant at both ends, easily maneuvers his way to the rim and shuts other players down on the defensive end. As the only seniors with college pledges, Keita and Wright join a handful of seniors on their team that hold college offers. Among those is 6’5’’ combo guard Jordan Bowden, who recently picked up offers from EKU, Southern Miss, and Utah. Others to keep an eye on are Darius Hicks (2016, offers include Miss. St., Miami, Providence…), Clifton Powell (2016, offers include UC Santa Barbara, Hampton, Tulsa…), and junior Tyler Scott.  

Hillcrest Prep, AZ
New program, Hillcrest Prep, quickly gained national attention when the No. 1 ranked junior, DeAndre Ayton, announced he would be joining the team. Ayton, a native of the Bahamas, holds offers from every major program in the country, but is being most heavily recruited by Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky. Hillcrest also features other top talent in a handful of guards. Senior point guard Julian Payton, who holds an offer from Texas Southern, is the son of former NBA superstar, Gary “The Glove” Payton. Junior guard Dontez Thomas and sophomore guard Jaden Lee both have offers from Texas- Rio Grande and Prairie View A&M.

Advanced Prep International, TX
Coach Ray Forsett brings in a well-rounded team full of talent who pride themselves on their work ethic. With goals of a national championship, key seniors Terrance Ferguson (No. 10 by ESPN,) and Mark Vital (No. 55 by Rivals, Baylor signee) hope to lead their team just there this April. With high-flyers Ferguson and Vital, API will be one of the most entertaining teams in high school hoops this season. Cincinnati signee Nysier Brooks and No. 6 junior Billy Preston will do nothing less than dominate in the paint. The Bulldogs welcomed in the top guard of the 2017 class, Trevon Duval, who is being heavily recruited by Maryland, Louisville, Baylor and UCLA, and senior Stevie Jordan who has signed with Rider. They will be playing in memory of teammate Kneiko Ketchens, who passed away in October

Word of God Christian, NC
Word of God Christian includes No. 9 (Rivals) ranked senior forward Rawle Alkins, who is down to his final nine schools. A New York native, his list includes New York based St. John’s, NC State, Kentucky, and North Carolina. The Holy Rams will also look to knock-down shooter senior Jaylen Fornes (UNC-Wilmington signee) and point guard Jalen Harris to be consistent threats. Word of God, whose alumni include current NBA point guard John Wall, will look to standout guard Blake Harris (No. 91 by 247Sports, offers include Wake Forest and LSU) to help Jalen Harris in the backcourt. Others to key in on include seniors Brandon Huffman and Mikeil Watkins and junior Jordan Whitfield.

Quality Education, NC
The Fighting Pharaohs are a veteran-heavy team this season with ten upperclassmen. QEA, always a powerhouse, will be run in the backcourt by senior Deshawn Corprew (No. 91 by 247Sports) and junior Renathan Ona-Embo (No. 71 by Rivals). Corprew is an under-ranked guard and is being targeted by high major programs like NC State and Virginia Tech. Ona-Embo is an up-and-coming shooting guard who already holds offers from USC and Cincinnati. Senior Keith Stagg will also be looked upon to provide help in the backcourt. Quality Education is a powerhouse that features many dominant post players. Standing at 6’9’’, senior Papa N’Diaye is arguably one of the teams’ most prevalent scorers. N’Diaye’s college offers include Oklahoma, Mississippi State, and Rhode Island. The Fighting Pharoah’s other two main big men are 6’9’’ senior Malik Brevard (offers include Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee…) and 6’7’’ senior Marsellis Purvis (offers include UNCG, Robert Morris…).

Victory Prep, TX
Victory Prep is led by No. 7 ranked junior Jarred Vanderbilt, who is being heavily recruited by Kentucky, Kansas, and many Texas based programs. The Cardinals are the reigning Texas Charter School State Champions. The Cardinals are a team made of mainly seniors and juniors, including seniors LaJuan Hardy and Antonio Terrell. They are coached by former NBA and Louisville star, Rodney McCray, who won an NBA Championship with the Chicago Bulls in 1993. Assistant coach, Moochie Norris, also has NBA experience, after a 10 year stint in the league.

Victory Rock Prep, FL
Victory Rock Prep includes 6’11’’ big man Gorjok Gak, who will join the Oklahoma State Cowboys next season. The Blue Devils also feature point guard Loren Christian Jackson (Long Beach) and 7’1’’ center Khadim Gueye who holds offers from Long Beach and South Florida. Starring alongside Gorjok Gak for VRP will be senior guard Blake Morrow and junior Mayan Kiir. Morrow is a guard who has drawn Division 2 offers and Kiir is a 6’9’’ forward who is drawing Division 1 interests. Head coach Loren B. Jackson has coached a slew of players who have went on to play in college and the NBA, including current Louisville center Mangok Mathiang and former Kentucky/current New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis.

Oldsmar Christian, FL
Oldsmar Christian features 6’8’’ forward Troy Baxter (No. 72 by 247Sports) who has signed his letter of intent with South Florida. Point guard Eric Hester (No. 87 by Rivals) and forward Dontay Bassett have both signed with the Florida Gators. Others to keep an eye on for the Eagles are junior L.J. Figueora (No. 63 by Rivals, offers include from Louisville, Miami, VA Tech…) and sophomore Elijah Weaver (offers include Louisville, Florida, Nebraska…). 

Potter’s House Christian, FL
Potter’s House is led by senior center Udoka Azubuike (No. 22 by ESPN), who is a dominant player down low. With a body that could compare to a young Shaquille O’Neal, 6’11’’, 270lb, and 7’8’’ wingspan, Azubuike aggressively attacks the basket and dunks with authority. He narrowed his list of colleges down to Kansas, Florida State, and North Carolina, and he plans to make the decision by the end of January. The Lions also feature two elite junior forwards, Louis Dorsey and DJ Russell. Russell is an elite forward who committed to Miami his freshman season. Now, a junior, he will be a key force for the Lions this season. 6’7’’ Dorsey currently holds an offer from Illinois State and is beginning to gain interest from others.

Breakdown of players participating in “The Grind Session National Championship

Thon Maker (former No. 1 player before moving outside US)

Josh Jackson (No. 1  Rivals 2016)

DeAndre Ayton (No.1 Rivals 2017

Trevon Duval (No. 4  Rivals 2017)

Billy Preston (No. 6 Rivals 2017)

Jarred Vanderbilt (No.7 Rivals 2017)

Rawle Alkins (No. 9  Rivals 2016)

Terrance Ferguson (No. 10  ESPN 2016)

Udoka Azubuike (No. 22 by ESPN 2016)

Matur Maker (No. 25 2018)

Isiah Jasey, No. 32 (ESPN 2017)

Ira Lee (No. 34 2017)

Kameron McGusty (No. 37 247Sports 2016)

Abu Kigab (No. 52)

Mark Vital (No. 55  Rivals 2016)

L.J. Figueora (No. 63  Rivals 2017)

Ona-Embo (No. 71 by Rivals 2017)

Vance Jackson (No.72 Rivals 2016)

Troy Baxter (No. 72  247Sports 2016)

Sedee Keita (No. 78 by ESPN 2016)

 Eric Hester (No. 87 Rivals 2016)

Deshawn Corprew (No. 91 247Sports 2016)

Blake Harris (No. 91 by 247Sports 2016)

Eli Wright (No. 94  Rivals 2016)

Tyler Ulis on Labissiere: “He just started fighting”

Skal Labissiere screamed after a dunk. (Vicky Graff Photo)

Skal Labissiere screamed after a dunk. (Vicky Graff Photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

No one believed more in Skal Labissiere than Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis. He helped convince coach John Calipari to put him into the starting lineup two games ago and he could determine just how far UK goes in the postseason.

Ulis shared a few thoughts on Labissiere earlier this week.

On how much easier his job is now that others are stepping up …
“A lot easier. I don’t have to look to score as much. With Skal (Labissiere) playing like he’s playing, we can feed him the ball, have a post presence. Alex (Poythress) playing in the post, Marcus (Lee) doing his job, rebounding and blocking shots. It just all helps our team and allows us to do our job and just win basketball games.”

On if it’s a “better late than never” situation …
“Yeah, this is the perfect time for them to come on because it’s March. Any minute is going to be win or go home, so with them stepping up, it’s big for our team. Everybody is doing their job now and I feel like we can make a run.”

On what changed in Skal Labissiere …
“I don’t know. I don’t think anything changed in him. He’s been working hard, he works out every night. He just started fighting. He got in there rebounding the ball, definitively blocking shots. I feel like when he made a couple jump shots, his offensive game confidence went up and that helped him on the defensive end.”

On what did he point out to Labissiere that he’s picking up now …
“Nothing really, he just started making shots. We know he’s a skilled player and he’s coming out doing what he’s capable of doing. I just try to get him in pick-and-rolls, put him in positions, pass him the ball, and he knocks shots down.”

On if Labissiere got a confidence boost after the start at Florida …
“Definitely because in the practices, he was really playing well, playing hard, rebounding the ball, making shots, post presence. Coach Cal decided to start him and when he got in there, it boosted his confidence. He got in and made a lot of shots. Hook shots, jump shots, all types of shots, which boosted his confidence for the next game.”

Mark Stoops: “We are moving into year four and we should be better.”

Stoops 2By LARRY VAUGHT

With so many new coaches on staff and the  need to solidify who will be the starting quarterback, this becomes an important spring practice for Kentucky coach Mark Stoops.

However, even if the staff was intact and a starting quarterback coming back, it would still be an important spring.

“We’re moving into year four and we should be better,” Stoops said. “I like where we’re at. I like the staff that we have in place. I like the players’ attitude.

“We’ve had a better offseason than we have any other year. I feel like we went longer this offseason as far as our fourth-quarter conditioning, and we went longer in those drills – longer period of time, longer duration each day.

“And the guys have been consistent, and that’s what we’re looking for and that’s what we talked about here this morning, at 6:30 this morning: Lets go out and – I knew everybody was going to be fired up and ready to go Day 1 (but) let’s make sure we have a great practice Day 15 and Day 1, with the same focus and the same energy, so it was a great start.”

Kentucky native Camron Justice knows BBN will fill Nashville

NASHVILLE — Camron Justice has not had the freshman season he hoped for at Vanderbilt but has no complaints about how things have gone going into his team’s game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Thursday.

“It has been up and down. I have been injured and trying to get in rotation and provide a spark for the team,” said Justice, who led Knott County Central to four straight 14th Region championships during his Kentucky prep career.

He scored 3,588 points — third most in state history — was named Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year in Kentucky after averaging 28.5 points, 6.2 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. He was also named a McDonald’s and Parade All-American.

Justice, who averages about 10 minutes and 3.3 points per game this year, says the “level of intensity and competitiveness” in the SEC was somewhat of an adjustment. Same with playing Kentucky twice, including a game the Commodores won in Nashville.

“It was a definitely different being my home state after growing up and watching them my whole life and going to see them play,” Justice said Wednesday. “It was a good feeling. It was probably more special to my family and friends. As I get older, it will become more unique for me. Freshman year it was just more in the moment situation for me.”

He knows how UK fans follow the Wildcats, especially to the SEC Tournament. Kentucky opens play Friday night.

“They talk about that stuff and how good the BBN travels and stuff like that. It is definitely a unique fan base and situation. But it will be just another game if we do play them,” Justice said.

Of course, the only way the two teams could meet would be in Sunday’s title game.

“I have family and friends coming down. Nashville is kind of close to home. It will be cool to see all of them as well as the BBN fans. A lot of people will be in town, so I will get hit up a lot I am sure,” he said. “Hopefully I can have a good tournament.”

Jon Toth, Courtney Love could be team leaders

By LARRY VAUGHT

Better leadership is something Mark Stoops is counting on from his team next season and wants that to start in spring practice.

“We do challenge these guys and give them the tools. As you know, Jason Cummings works with our team quite often and does a fantastic job. He’s a talented guy and gives the players some tools and resources to help them lead, as the coaches obviously do as well,” Stoops said his first spring workout Tuesday.

“But we’re challenging certain guys, and you’re starting to see that. A guy like (center) Jon Toth that maybe it’s not in his nature to really be as boisterous as we need him to be, but you’re seeing him step up and do that. I think you’re seeing – everybody talks about it but it’s true – with (linebacker) Courtney Love.

“He’s a guy that really hasn’t played any significant snaps here, in games he hasn’t played at all, but you see the leadership there and there’s nothing fake about him. He’s a great leader, a great kid and he’s a great addition to our team. You’re seeing some guys step up.”