Coach says Hart will be a UK fan favorite

Published 2:15 am Friday, June 23, 2023


Contributing columnist

If Noah Hawkins is right, Kentucky basketball fans are going to like John Calipari’s most recent signee — a lot.

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“He is 18 years old but has the maturity of an adult. You would think he is 50,” said Hawkins, who has known Joey Hart since he was 5 years old. “The UK fan base will love him and how respectful he is. He’s a great kid and player.”

The 6-5, 180-pound Hart is a top-five player in Indiana and averaged 23.7 points per game for Linton-Stockton High School and shot about 40 percent from 3-point range. The Miners were Class AA state runner-up with a 29-2 record and he was named to the Indiana All-Star Team but missed the game against Kentucky because of a turf toe injury.

He was part of a sectional championship team four years and has more versatility and athleticism than some expect.

“He is an excellent shooter. His biggest strength in his shooting is he is open when he is not open. He can get his shot off. He knows the difference in the SEC versus high school but he’s 6-5 and has a great vertical (jump) that he uses well on his jump shot,” Hawkins said. “He has a very high release point on his shot.

“He’s got more bounce to him than most people realize and uses it on his shot. He gets open because he shoots above the defense. A 6-9 guy was on him in the state finals and he went up above him. He can get his shot but he’s also going to attack the rim and score.”

Hawkins’ 11-year-old son watches basketball a lot with his father. They go to Bloomington to watch the Indiana Hoosiers play and also go to Indiana Pacers games.

“We were sitting on the baseline at a IU game watching warmups and he said he wanted to go to the concession stand. I said didn’t he want to watch what the players were doing. He said, ‘No, Joey does all that.’ He had no interest in watching them dunk and stuff because he sees it every day with Joey,” Hawkins said.

Off the court, Hawkins says Hart is very mild mannered and a player youngsters really like.

“Joey is an incredible role model for my son and other kids,” Hawkins said. “I organize our youth basketball program and kids love Joey to death. As a coach and dad of a young boy, Joey is the kid you want your son looking up to.

“He doesn’t complain about things. He is very quiet off the court and I really don’t know how to emphasize just how quiet he is. He’s never in trouble. He’s a gym rat and just a good kid.”

Hawkins always thought he was a gym rat but says Porter showed him what a “real gym rat” was really like.

“I open the gym at 6:30 (a.m.) and he will already have a workout done and be ready to go for another one,” the coach said. “He’s always working. His dad coached against me in high school and then I started coaching with his dad.

“We are a small southern Indiana town but a basketball hotbed. People live and die with every game around here. His athleticism and bounce are the kind you just don’t see in this area. He’s not just a catch and shoot guy.”

Hart originally signed with Central Florida but got his release from the school in mid-May. Once he did, Kentucky got involved quickly.

“I was honestly surprised that there were not more Power Five schools involved all along with him,” Hawkins said. “There are roles to fill on every team. As a coach, you’ve got to have kids to fill roles. You don’t need five guys who can score or five who can rebound. You’ve got to have guys who fill roles and do their jobs. He can fit most systems and fill roles, so I was not surprised to see Kentucky reach out or him pick Kentucky.”

’23 was a dream season for UK pitcher

Darren Williams pitched four seasons at Eastern Kentucky University before transferring to Kentucky and pitching in nine games in 2023 before needing Tommy John surgery on his elbow when he was 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA in 29 innings.

The Mason County native was 4-2 this season with a 4.26 ERA in 63⅓ innings and was one of the main players Kentucky coach Nick Mingione used in UK’s march to the Super Regional. Kentucky’s season ended at LSU but Williams said it was still a “dream” year for him.

“I couldn’t even throw a baseball a year ago. And to be able to do what this team did, I’ll never forget it. Nobody picked us at all at the beginning of the year. And just the togetherness, the grittiness, unselfishness, like Coach always talks about. It’s so true,” Williams said after the final game. “That team loves each other, tight group, on and off the field. The dream season — what a Kentucky kid wants to do if he plays for Kentucky.”

Williams played against Mingione and UK when he was at Eastern Kentucky but joked he had “gotten so tight” with his coach over the last two seasons.

“One of the most influential men in my life, not just a good coach, a hell of a person. One of the best human beings I’ve ever met. And when I tore my elbow last year, he was just as emotional as a family member,” Williams said. So he means the world to me. I’m sure we’ll stay close forever.

“He lets us control the locker room. He’s not some crazy psycho coach that you’ve seen videos of before — genuine, honest to you. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve loved to play baseball for that man. I wish I could do it again. I’ve had a hell of a two years with him. I appreciate everything he’s done for me.”

Williams knows UK’s 40-win season will have a lasting impact on the program but he says it started last year when UK lost three starting pitchers early in SEC play and somehow came back to make a run like no other No. 12 seed ever had in SEC Tournament play.

“We were down a whole weekend (pitching) rotation. In this league you don’t come back from that you don’t have any success after that. And what we did in the last month of the 2022 season, coming together with unselfishness, nobody cared what their role was anymore. They just wanted to win, somehow find a way to win,” Williams said.

“We made the best run a 12 seed has ever made in Hoover last year. That changes a program. And Coach recruited specific kinds of guys for this year’s team out of the transfer portal last year who just wanted to win. All they cared about was winning.

“And that’s what it takes in baseball. It’s a team game. You need one through 27 to buy in, not care about roles, just want to win for the guy next to you. That’s how we won 40 games this year.”