Givens says this UK team is different

Published 12:02 pm Thursday, July 20, 2023


Contributing columnist

He knows it is only July and still the “honeymoon” phase for the 2023-24 Kentucky basketball team but former UK All-American Jack “Goose” Givens has a different feeling about this team compared to last year at the same time.

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“Compared to the Bahamas (exhibition trip) last year this group seems to do more stuff off the floor as a big group,” said Givens. “They seem to do more together than the team last year did. The chemistry seems to be better now than last summer in the Bahamas.

“It’s nice to see five, six or seven guys sitting around the lobby talking or walking around the streets together. They are hanging out. It’s just a little different vibe from talking to the guys. They genuinely seem to enjoy each other.”

Givens not only is the analyst for the UK Radio Network but he also interviews players, stayed at the same hotel and even went on the visit to rapper/songwriter Drake’s home with the team. He watched UK beat Canada twice and Africa and Germany one time apiece to claim the gold medal at GLOBL Jam.

“They like each other. They like sharing the ball,” Givens said about UK having 102 assists in four games. “They genuinely seem to enjoy helping teammates look good. Sharing the basketball is contagious. I saw maybe a couple of quick shots but no me-ball and that’s not even on my radar as a potential issue for this team.”

Even with 7-footers Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso not playing because of injuries, Givens saw positives throughout the roster.

“I could say positive stuff about everyone. Even with the two bigs out, they found a way to rebound the basketball better than I thought they would and they forced more turnovers than I thought,” he said.

Givens noted this is one year he can legitimately believe coach John Calipari when he says it will take time to figure out the best playing combinations.

“They have so many guys with different assets,” Givens said. “What a luxury to be able to play different lineups. I know Cal does not do that very often and likes to get a set lineup and rotation but things might be a little different this year with this group. There are a lot of guys on this team who can do individual stuff that leads to making this team as a whole look a lot better.

“They really had a lot of good learning opportunities and figured out how to do some things and play together. I know it is only July but there is a lot to like about this team.”

One player who did not surprise Givens was freshman guard Reed Sheppard, who even played point guard at times during the GLOBL Jam and had a team-high 18 assists.

“He had the ball in his hands late in the game when you had to run offense, not just transition stuff,” Givens said.

Givens also liked a lot about West Virginia transfer Tre Mitchell, including his ability to hit outside shots and play under control.

“He’s a smart player, stays patient and knows his role. When it is time to produce, he produces,” Givens said. “He’s even a smart player on defense.”

Mitchell had 18 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in the gold medal game victory over Canada. Givens said he didn’t realize what Mitchell had done until he looked at the stat sheet after Sunday’s game.

“We talked about his ability to pass the basketball but he probably does not get enough credit for that,” Givens said. “What a pickup he was. He has been a difference maker and is really going to help this team.”

Givens sees a lot for UK basketball fans to look forward to this season.

“This team played better than most thought it would in Toronto and it was really fun to watch them do that,” Givens said. “I feel really, really good about this team. I love the different combinations and I liked the small ball that we saw. But the big thing is they learned they can play together and they can win together.”

UK players, from left, DJ Wagner, Tre Mitchell, Adou Thiero, Rob Dillingham and Antonio Reeves during the GLOBL Jam in Toronto. Vicky Graff photo

Jack “Goose” Givens