Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
In Potential Final NCAA Tournament, Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe Wants to Win it All
INDIANAPOLIS — Isaiah Briscoe was seated in the corner of the Kentucky locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse preparing for what could be his final NCAA Tournament.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore from Newark, N.J., tested the NBA Draft waters last season and then opted to return to campus. There’s no guarantee he’ll return for his junior year, so that puts an urgency on the here and now.
“I wanna go out with a bang, obviously,” he told me here this week. “I’m not gonna shy away from it, but obviously I want to win. I want to win a national championship. We gotta work hard, we gotta play together, we gotta play Kentucky basketball. And if we do all that, great things will happen.”
No. 2 Kentucky faces a tough No. 10 Wichita State team here on Sunday afternoon, a team that includes fellow New Jersey native Markis McDuffie out of St. Anthony’s. If the Wildcats survive that they will advance to Memphis in the South’s “Bracket of Death” that also includes No. 1 North Carolina and No. 3 UCLA.
The Wildcats could beat any and all of those teams and make the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz. But at this time of year, the end can come at any time.
Just ask Villanova.
“This is the end of the year now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said here Saturday. “This is like when you lose, you fall off the cliff.”
After leading Roselle Catholic to the 2015 New Jersey Tournament of Champions title, Briscoe chose Kentucky over St. John’s and UConn after Calipari made a late push following Briscoe’s strong summer in which he won the Peach Jam title with the NJ Playaz and a gold medal with the USA U18 team.
Briscoe initially had hopes of being a one-and-done at Kentucky, but his shooting wasn’t strong enough to win over NBA personnel.
This year, Briscoe is averaging 12.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 47 percent from the field. That’s up from last year when he averaged 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 44 percent.
While Kentucky freshmen De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo are all projected first-rounders by DraftExpress.com, Briscoe is not currently on the mock for 2017.
Calipari believes Briscoe will have a shot at the NBA eventually, but knows he must work on his shot.
“He’s going to be fine,” Calipari said in response to my question on Saturday. “He’s got the body. He’s got the physique, so that’s not an issue. He’s going to have to get in the gym and the shot’s going to have to be more consistent. But do you know how many guys go in that league with that as the one thing?
“When you handle the ball like he does, when you’re as tough as he is, that’s winning basketball. Got to shoot the ball better. All right, get in the gym, shoot a thousand a day, make a thousand a day.”
Still, because Briscoe’s best strength involves penetrating and getting to the rim, Calipari said he may actually be more suited for the NBA game than the college, something Roselle Catholic coach Dave Boff has said in the past, too.
“I think his leadership, his defense, his toughness, his rebounding, his ability to get in the lane,” Calipari said. “I mean, if your team is not attacking that lane, and he gets in 16, 18 times a game, his feet are in that lane.
“There’s unbelievable value to that. Shooting free throws better, shooting the ball better in the last week or so. His ability to create shots for his teammates. But, more importantly, he just comes up with balls. One we needed yesterday, he’s the guy that dove on the floor and scooped it.
“He’s really become that well-rounded player that I would have hoped. And he’s playing with young guys, like he’s the guy — he’s the old guy. He’s like 20. He’s the old guy.”
Briscoe didn’t expect to be that “old guy” when he first committed to Kentucky but now he has become that older brother to the younger guys.
“It’s been fun, a lot of learning,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of teaching with these guys. It’s been fun, it’s a great group of guys. We all get along.
“It’s crazy that I am the older guy and everybody looks up to me but at the end of the day we still gotta go out and play basketball and just play hard.”
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.