Isaiah Briscoe is a very important player for UK who can do a lot of damage.
As you may have noticed, while he can score and rebound, he can also play a very tough defense. And his coach, John Calipari, has said the 6-3 freshman guard from Newark, N.J., has potential to be the best defensive guard in the nation.
“He’s a fighter,” said Calipari of Briscoe, a McDonald’s All-American who really wasn’t known much for his defensive prowess in prep ranks.
When Briscoe missed the recent Kentucky-Louisville showdown due to a pre-game ankle injury, Calipari warned the rookie will bounce back.
“Now what he’ll do (after that injury) is he’ll come back and kill people next week, if his ankle is healthy. That’s how he is,” added the coach after Kentucky’s 75-73 win over U of L.
In the next game, as it turned out, Briscoe helped Tyler Ulis slow down SEC’s leading scorer star Stefan Moody last Saturday night when the Wildcats dominated Ole Miss 83-61. Briscoe, who on Monday estimated that his ankle is now about 70 or 80 percent healthy, had a career-high four steals against the Rebels (along with Ulis’ six steals) in 35 minutes. He also grabbed five rebounds.
Against Ole Miss, the Wildcats made numerous defensive stops. After reviewing the game film, Briscoe said several of his teammates “were shocked at the way we were playing defense so hard, rotating and stunting, everything like that. Coach just explained to us that’s the way we have to play for 40 minutes.
“If we play hard on defense, it makes our offense much easier.”
Going into Saturday night’s action with Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Briscoe is among the SEC leaders in steals per game (1.7), which is good for fourth place. His teammate, Ulis, is No. 8 with 1.5 steals. In addition to his outstanding defense, Briscoe is also a team leader in scoring and rebounding departments. He is third in both categories with an average of 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds. He is Kentucky’s top rebounding guard.
In UK’s 87-77 loss at UCLA, Briscoe gunned a career-high 20 points on seven of 10 shooting and was named SEC Freshman of the Week in early December after scoring 38 points to lead the Cats in two games.
Calipari said last month that Briscoe has been a pleasant surprise when it comes to defense.
“He’s been terrific. I got calls from back in New York, like, they cannot believe it. Like, he never really guarded,” added Calipari. “Now he’s become the best that you’ll see — the best rebounding guard. They watch how he’s playing north and south and there’s no east and west.”
Briscoe — who is struggling with free throw shooting from the line at 35.3 percent (18 of 51 overall), including one of seven freebies in UK’s 85-67 loss to LSU earlier this week — said the biggest thing he has learned at Kentucky is that he “can play harder than I was playing in high school.”
What has been the toughest part for him in college so far?
“Just playing hard on both ends of the court,” said Briscoe, whose cousin, Kyrie Irving, plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. “You have to be in tip-top shape to do that. I’m in pretty good shape, but there’s room for improvement.”
According to DraftExpress.com, Briscoe is projected as a late first-round pick in 2016 NBA Mock Draft at No. 24 as of Jan. 5.
Asked how he would grade himself at this point, Briscoe laughed, saying “A.”
If I were grading him as a basketball professor, I think I’d give him a slightly lower grade. How about “B-plus” (due to low free throw shooting percentage)?
One way or the other, that’s still a very grade, especially for a Wildcat rookie guard.
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While ex-UK standout Mark Pope was glad to see his former mentor, Rick Pitino — who coached him at Kentucky many years ago — during his team’s recent visit to Louisville, he and his Utah Valley University players did not fare well in the Billy Minardi Classic.
His Wolverines dropped two games, including a 28-point setback against Pitino’s Cardinals, at the KFC Yum Center.
One of five former Pitino players who are active coaches in the collegiate level, Pope said the school scheduled two matchups in Louisville after he was named the coach last spring.
And he’d love a future opportunity to coach Utah Valley against the Wildcats at Rupp Arena.
“We would love to play at UK,” said Pope, who was a member of Kentucky’s 1996 national championship squad.
Before coming to Utah Valley, Pope was an assistant coach at Brigham Young for four years after brief stints as assistant at Wake Forest and Georgia.
Pope commented the U of L coach was one of several individuals he discussed with before accepting the position at Utah Valley, his first as head coach.
“I talked to several of my mentors in basketball and was almost universally encouraged to take it when these guys learned about what it was,” said Pope. “So I had a lot of people influence me there.
“Coach Pitino is one guy that I have turned to on every step of my career. I turn to him for advice on every single decision I have made in my coaching career.”
Pope loves coaching and he has no regrets in leaving the medical school at Columbia University in New York after spending three years there. He also had completed several pre-med courses while he was in the NBA.
“I do love it (coaching) so much,” said Pope. “I really believe I was born to do this. I love working with these young men I love chasing goals. I love trying to help a team capture a singular vision of what they are going to do and how they do it. I love to be in this college environment with these great coaches who are inspiring to me and these young men who are chasing dreams as hard as they can and find themselves humbled, exposed, growing and accomplishing great things all the time.”
On Pitino’s influence while at UK, Pope commented, “I had so many great moments with coach Pitino from being in his office with him one on one reprimanding me in a less than subtle way to standing beside him in the Meadowlands holding up national championship trophy and everything in between.
“He drove me harder than any coach I have ever been around and taught me so much how to function on a team and what that means. I had a million great moments with him.”
Pope and his wife, Lee Anne have four daughters who range in age from 6 to 14. His wife, interestingly, has a television background, working at ESPN and serving as former TV personality David Letterman’s personal assistant for four years.
Entering this week’s action, Pope’s Utah Valley is 6-9 for the season. The Wolverines play in the Western Athletic Conference, which includes members like New Mexico State, which has been to the NCAA Tournament for the last four years, and Grand Canyon, which faced UK last season.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at [email protected]