His Kentucky teammates lean on Isaiah Briscoe for his wealth of experience. They know he has been around for a whole year, which makes him a graybeard on a team that is the capital of college basketball’s one-and-done trend.
Briscoe did not expect to be here either. When he was a freshman, he did not envision himself leading Kentucky to a 69-48 rout of Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. He did not picture himself being a mentor to the likes of first-year guard Malik Monk, who shot 7-for-11 from three-point range and scored 23 points. Briscoe thought he would be playing in the Garden as a pro, as most of Kentucky’s players do after one year on campus.
But he just felt he was not ready. Mostly Briscoe, a star from Newark, looked at his shooting percentages. “He said, ‘I’m a shooter.’ I said, ‘You’re a shooter, you’re just not a maker,’ ” coach John Calipari said after his team blitzed a quality opponent in the first half of the Champions Challenge showcase.
Having appeared poised in every second of his 35 minutes Tuesday night, scoring 21 points and shooting 8-for-18, Briscoe said, “I feel more comfortable on the court. I know how to play the game better as far as college basketball. Getting the easy buckets when I’m tired, subbing myself out, making the right plays, not using so much energy. That comes with being experienced. I just feel like a totally different player.”
He is determined to make his younger teammates better and wiser — in a hurry, which is paramount in Kentucky’s system. Chances are, many of them will not be back next year. “He’s teaching us what works, what we have to do in practice and games,” Monk said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s just helping guiding us through.”
Monk had not shot well in his first two games, but Briscoe encouraged him, saying he was due for a good night. Fellow freshmen De’Aaron Fox (12 points), Edrice Abedayo (six points, five rebounds, two blocks) and Wenyen Gabriel (four points, six rebounds) also played well on the big stage. Most impressive was the defense they all played, holding Michigan State’s heralded freshman Miles Bridges to six points and 2-for-11 shooting.
It was the kind of night that made Briscoe glad he did not leave so soon. “The decision to come back was not hard at all,” he said. “I knew the freshman class coming in, I knew they were a great group of guys and I knew we had a chance to be special.”
At least for one year.