By LARRY VAUGHT
Former college basketball coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg loved what Nate Sestina did for Kentucky last season and thought he was “terrific” for the Cats on the court and in the locker room.
However, Greenberg believes if UK can get Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr eligible next season he’ll bring a whole different level of help than Sestina did after his transfer from Bucknell.
“Sarr has chance to be a really good piece for them because of the players they will have around him,” said Greenberg. “His style of play, skill level really fits. He’s active, does a nice job rebounding and has a very high basketball IQ.
“I loved what I thought (Purdue transfer Matt) Haarms would have added because of his defensive intensity if he had picked Kentucky but he was not as skilled offensively as Sarr. This could be really good for them. With the size of their wings and backcourt adding a skilled front court player like him who can move his feet, has experience at the highest level and has been productive is really big.
“This guy has proven himself in the ACC. Wake Forest did not win a ton of games last year but he played at a pretty high level for a long time and just seems like a really good get for Kentucky with his skill, size and athleticism not to mention his experience and versatility.”
The 7-foot center averaged 13.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 26.7 minutes per game last year while shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 76.1 percent at the foul line. He also averaged just 3.1 fouls per game — or one per each nine minutes played. Those numbers were big jumps from his sophomore season when he averaged 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 21.6 minutes per game and shot 47.4 percent from the field.
Greenberg doesn’t like to compare players but says Sarr will have more offensive skills than some centers Calipari has had at UK and certainly was needed on a roster that lacked a true center.
“He can pass it. He can rebound and his rebounds per minutes are really good. He can contest shots,” Greenberg said. “He’s not a 3-point shooter but he won’t need to be. He can finish at the rim and get to the (foul line). Wake Forest was guard oriented but his shot selection is good and he has a good feel for how to score.
“He can score around the basket, score off the baseline, play off the elbow some, things John wants his center to do. You are not going to get a ton of shots at Kentucky but he will be able to take advantage of the shots he does get.”
The ESPN analyst says the level of competition Sarr has faced makes him even more valuable to UK.
“When you play in that league (ACC) there are no rocking chair games (to take it easy). You have got to be ready to play every night. Every game is big and that will serve him well at Kentucky because every game Kentucky plays is big for the opponent. Expectations at Kentucky are so crazy for everything but he’s used to being in the big-game atmosphere.”
Greenberg hopes the NCAA gives Sarr a waiver to play after Wake Forest waited until late April to fire coach Danny Manning knowing Sarr would not have time then to enter the NBA draft. It’s not a given he will get a waiver but Greenberg thinks it is the right thing to do.
Greenberg was a head coach for 22 years and remembers when he was fired by Virginia Tech in late April of 2012.
“When you are let go in late April, it impacts so many things,” Greenberg said. “A coach can’t go get another job. It’s impactful to players.
“They (Wake Forest) basically handcuffed that kid so he wouldn’t put his name in the draft. That’s just wrong. How do you wait until the end of April to fire him when the season ended in early March? It took that long to make this decision. Come on. That is just wrong.”
At least three other ESPN personalities — Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale and Paul Biancardi — have all indicated they think the NCAA should allow Sarr to play next year at UK. Greenberg believes new Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes, who tried to keep Sarr, will be supportive of the transfer because he told Greenberg he hoped Sarr gets to play.
“If he doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to be here. We’re trying to rebuild a program and I want guys that want to be here is what he told me,” Greenberg said about Forbes. “There’s a respect among coaches and Cal has tremendous respect for Steve. Steve, I know, has great respect for Cal. Sometimes you just gotta do what’s right. I hope the kid gets eligible.”
He’s not the highest profile player in Kentucky’s 2020 recruiting class but UK assistant coach Joel Justus believes 6-6 Cam’Ron Fletcher of St. Louis could be a bigger difference maker than many realize even if he’s not a McDonald’s All-American or even a five-star player.
“Cam comes in with tremendous athleticism,” Justus said. “He’s a live body that can be moved all over the floor. He seems to be high octane. The fast-paced team we will potentially have next season could be undersized and he will be ready to play fast and really help us.”
Justus says Fletcher reminds him some of UK freshman Keion Brooks Sr. He called him a “Swiss Army knife” who can move around and do a variety of things to help a team win.
“He’s going to get better because he’s going to work on his skills. I don’t think he knows yet just how good he can be,” Justus said. “I can’t wait to see what he can do with all that talent.
“He can almost be like Keion. He is the type player who can play from the top of the key to the wing to the baseline. The last play of the season turned out to be Keion posting up (at Florida) off the block and going one on one. Cam could do the same because he fits that same mode.”
Justus said playing Brooks and Fletcher together could possibly create havoc because of their long, athletic frames.
“Cam can guard multiple position just like Keion,” Justus said. “Cam has to become better with his skills and shooting. But he gives us versatility and a passion for the game that you really like.”
With Kentucky now apparently having the big man it needs for next basketball season in 7-foot Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr, that makes the play of freshman Devin Askew and Creighton grad transfer Davion Mintz at point guard even more important.
Former UK point guard Roger Harden understood his primary job was to get the ball to Kenny Walker, Winston Bennett and Ed Davender when he ran the offense for both coach Joe Hall and then Eddie Sutton.
“The teams that win have a point guard getting the most out of everybody They are sacrificing field goal attempts for that to make the team better,” Harden said. “A point guard has to give you stability, low turnovers, high assists and if he’s open be able to make a shot. But the best ones get the ball to the right people to get you the best chance to win.”
Harden says that’s what Marquis Teague did so well in 2012 when he got the ball to Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones.
“And never think that DeAaron Fox could not have had a lot bigger numbers at UK but he sacrificed his numbers for the team,” Harden said. “That’s why he’s my all-time favorite UK point guard next to Anthony Epps.
“Fox could create his shot and get to the hole but he made sure others were content with what they were getting. That’s the attitude you want in a point guard to have a really successful team.”
He was not quite the unknown Josh Allen was when he came to Kentucky or totally ignored by Division I football coaches like Calvin Taylor was in high school but senior linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson was not expected to be the player he has been — or could become next season.
He was a three-star recruit out of Maryland who did not play football until his junior year of high school when he had 74 tackles and a 75-yard touchdown return for a score. He was also a standout basketball player who earned several Division I scholarship offers.
Watson had a huge junior year for Kentucky. He started 11 games and had 36 tackles, including a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and a team-high seven quarterback hurries. He also had 6.5 quarterback sacks (tired for sixth in the SEC), forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.
Just how good could Watson be as a senior? Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said it was “definitely a possibility” that Watson could have a Josh Allen type of season. In case you forgot, Allen was the consensus national defensive player of the year in 2018 when UK won the Citrus Bowl. He became a first round pick of Jacksonville.
“I know Boogie is highly motivated. He’s worked really hard,” Stoops said. “Just like any player, you go through some ups and downs, mentally, physically. I know he was highly motivated to put it all together this last year, to be a great leader, to be a great teammate, to do everything necessary to prepare himself for this year.
“There’s a guy I have full confidence in. During this time he’s doing everything he can to make sure he’s ready to play. I do expect big things out of Boogie.”
He won’t turn 16 years old until November, but Boyle County freshman Tommy Ziesmer already has six Division I football scholarship offers.
“I think it is flattering. I like having offers and coaches seeing me as a person who as a senior can produce a lot more than I did as a freshman,” said Ziesmer
Kentucky is one of the schools that has offered him along with Louisville, West Virginia, Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky.
“People told me the first offer was really hard to get. I was thinking maybe I would get one my junior year or at least senior year,” the 6-2, 220-pound Ziesmer said. “But once Louisville offered me, I got a lot more offers and hopefully will get more.”
He started at defensive end for Boyle County and coach Chuck Smith, a former assistant coach at Kentucky under Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips. At UK he coached linebackers Bud Dupree, Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan — all NFL players. Dupree recently signed a $15.6 million deal for 2020 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“At first it was kind of intimidating playing for him because he is a very intimidating guy,” Ziesmer said. “But he helped me a lot with my techniques and moves. He helped me a lot mentally, too. I know he has coached great players, so you have to be impressed with that. I was just lucky he taught me to do a lot of things last year.”
Smith resigned after Boyle’s 14-1 season ended with a loss in the Class AAA state title game but Ziesmer knows he can lean on Smith for help if needed.
“I got a lot more comfortable with him as the year went on and know if I needed him, he would be there to help,” Ziesmer said.
Kentucky High School Athletic Association commissioner Julian Tackett warned last week that there’s likely no way the 2020 high school fall sports season would look anything like the 2019 season.
He wouldn’t rule out sports like golf and cross country being able to start before football, soccer and volleyball.
“The first barrier is to get people back on campus. When can athletes get into training facilities and into locker rooms?” Tackett said. “How confident do you feel that most high school weight rooms can have social distancing? There will be a challenge to that part.”
It would be the same if high schools tried to play games without fans or just limited fans.
“You could have a potential disaster at the gates because who is going to say who gets in and who does not,” Tackett said. “There would be some dynamics where (players’) relatives should be upset. It’s not as easy to do as just say let 140 fans per team in.”
Tackett said he’s had numerous inquiries from schools about moving football games to bigger venues to make social distancing more practical for fans.
“People are talking about moving games to Saturday where they can use a larger facility,” Tackett said. “We have so much (artificial) turf in the state now and so many opportunities where that could maybe happen.”
Tackett did say last week he was more optimistic about fall sports being played than he was a week before and believes my mid-June decisions will have to be made about when or if fall sports will be allowed.
“It’s more important to know when we can practice than when we can play,” Tackett said.
He said he knows there are a “bunch” of high school football bowl games in August that provide significant revenue for schools and also many of those game involve teams traveling longer distances to play than they would once school starts.
“So there already has to be some contingency planning by schools now about that,” he said.
Quote of the Week: “He bulked up during the summer heading into his sophomore season and became a dominant presence in the post late last season. He has a vast array of post up moves and is solid from 15-feet in. Good footwork and soft hands. He’ll fit in nicely in Lexington,” Demon Deacons publisher Les Johns on UK transfer Olivier Sarr.
Quote of the Week 2: “I haven’t had to do anything worse in my 11 years as commissioner and certainly in other positions where I have had to make a decision that was that difficult. We live every day and we work every day to create opportunities for students,” KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett on having to cancel the boys and girls state basketball tournaments.
Quote of the Week 3: “As hard as theses times are for all I think from a sporting sense it’s shown us to appreciate just how unique and special an opportunity it is to play sport and compete in front of thousands and to never take that for granted. A perspective usually only gained post career,” UK All-American punter Max Duffy on COVID-19 perspective.