LEXINGTON, Ky. — There were plenty of stat stuffers for the Wildcats in Kentucky basketball’s third and final exhibition game Friday night, a 106-63 demolition of Division III Centre College. But don’t overlook the guy who scored six points off the bench.
Sure, Wenyen Gabriel went for 20 points and 9 rebounds. Yes, Quade Green had 18 points and 5 assists. Nick Richards’ 17 points and 6 boards were impressive — his zero fouls even more so — and Kevin Knox’s 15 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals sure looked pretty in black and white.
But much more quietly, and perhaps more importantly, there was 6-foot-10 sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones, who played just 15 minutes but managed to grab 9 rebounds. It’s not so much that he achieved that feat against an overmatched team with only one player taller than 6-7, rather that it was the continuation of a preseason trend.
Killeya-Jones, a former McDonald’s All-American who did not log a minute in Kentucky’s final 19 games last season, has delivered 13 points, 22 rebounds (10 offensive), 4 assists and 2 steals in 45 total minutes across three exhibitions.
Coach John Calipari told him his path to playing time is defending and rebounding, and Killeya-Jones has bought into that role.
“A hundred percent,” he said Friday. “I talked to Cal and asked him, ‘What do you need me to do to help this team?’ That’s really what I’m focused on. I just want to help this team any way I can, and if he says to rebound and defend, I’m going to go out there and rebound and defend. I’m not worried about anything else. Everything else will come.”
Gabriel, who sank three 3-pointers against the Colonels and averaged 12 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in his own preseason resurgence, saw this coming from Killeya-Jones.
“That definitely all started in practice,” Gabriel said. “Sacha had a couple of good practices leading up to this and it’s started to show in the game. I’m proud of him. I just hope he keeps that up, because we’re going to need that as the season goes on.”
Calipari was so irritated by Kentucky getting out-rebounded by Morehead State on Monday night, the coach literally put lids on all the baskets in practice and made players play full-court games in which they could only score points by rebounding the inevitable misses — one point for a defensive board, two for an offensive board.
Killeya-Jones thrived in that game, recognizing it’s his only way onto the court on this super-talented team.
“At that position, that’s always been a blueprint for those guys to get more minutes, and I think Sacha has embraced that,” assistant coach Joel Justus said. “It takes time for guys to embrace the physicality that it takes to rebound. I think he’s getting there. He’s had a couple weeks of practices and some good minutes — better minutes — in the Morehead game than the Thomas More game, and he was better in the Thomas More game than he was in the Blue-White [scrimmage].
“So think he’s in the same boat as the rest of the guys, in that it has to be daily improvement. If we go at it that way, then I think you’ll see a jump for him as well.”
It has required a change of mindset for Killeya-Jones, who posted at least 20 points and 10 rebounds 13 times as a senior in high school en route to a 5-star recruiting ranking and the attention of Virginia and North Carolina among others.
“It’s been somewhat frustrating, just because your whole life coming up [you’re] trying to get 25 points,” he admits. “But I haven’t really let it get to me, because I’m doing the things Coach has asked me to do and that’s the most important part. This team isn’t relying on me to go score 20 points a game. This team is relying on me to rebound, talk, help side defense.
“So I’m doing what this team needs me to do. As long as that’s happening, I’ll be happy with that.”