Kentucky’s Worldcats Have Eye on Winning

Under head coach John Calipari, the Kentucky men’s basketball team has always had a few traits that every member of the Big Blue Nation has grown to expect.

The Cats are going to be one of the most talented teams in the country, if not the most talented team. They’re going to play stingy defense, throw plenty of lobs for dunks and win nearly every game they play at historic Rupp Arena. They’re going to be one of the most talked about and dissected teams in the country, and they’re going to boost TV ratings.

This all may sound a bit brash, but it’s also true, and it’s enough for the legions of Kentucky basketball fans spanning the globe to salivate over the anticipation of a new season.

Just like each of Calipari’s first six teams at Kentucky, his seventh is filled with great talent, including a number of McDonald’s All-Americans and top-50 ranked prospects. But there’s one thing the 2015-16 Wildcats have more of than any other team Calipari has coached at Kentucky: international players.

“It’s pretty interesting,” Canadian junior wing Mychal Mulder said. “You don’t really see that a lot. We probably have the most international players in the NCAA of anybody I can think of. The NBA’s starting to look like that a little bit, but not so much at our level. I think it’s great. It’s great to see basketball at all areas all around the world and it’s great to see them come together.”

Mulder is one of four international players on the roster this season. He’s joined by Isaac Humphries from Australia, Skal Labissiere from Haiti, and Jamal Murray, a Kitchener, Ontario native. In all, the four international players on the Wildcats’ roster this year match the total Calipari has signed in his previous six years in Lexington combined.

“I don’t really care where they’re from, if they have a tattoo, what color they are,” Calipari said. “None of that ever – you saying that gets me like, huh? I went into a home one time, ‘How many white players do you have?’ ‘Let me think. I don’t know. Is he white? Is he black? I don’t know. Does that matter?’ … They’re players.”

The 2010-11 Wildcats had Enes Kanter, a Turkey native who never played a game with UK but practiced each day, and Eloy Vargas, a Dominican Republic native who also played the following year. This past season, Kentucky had a pair of future lottery picks in Trey Lyles of Canada, and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Dominican Republic.

The recent surge of foreign players hasn’t been some master plan the newly minted Hall of Fame coach has devised though. Instead, Calipari says this is just how it’s gone, but there is a common trait that Humphries, Labissiere, Mulder and Murray share that he looks for in all of his recruits, which is an eagerness to embrace all that Kentucky entails.

“You’re recruiting guys who don’t want to run from this,” Calipari said. “This is what they want. Whether they’re from Lexington, Ky., or Toronto, Canada, or from Australia or New Zealand, who wants this? Because guys who play here, they’ll tell you – you’ve got to want this. It’s not something you can run from. You’ve got to run at it. And those are the guys that come here and have success. So it’s not been by design. But again, the guys we have, I don’t care where they’re from, they’re pretty good players.”

He’s certainly right about that.

At the 2014 FIBA U-17 World Championship, Humphries helped guide Australia to the finals against Team USA by averaging 18.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in seven games. His scoring and rebounding averages each ranked third in the entire tournament, while his 3.3 blocks per game were tied for the second most. During Australia’s run to silver, he scored 41 points and grabbed 19 rebounds against Murray’s Canadian team.

“When I was making my decision I was talking to my mom and she said, ‘You should fly with the eagles instead of walk with the turkeys,’ ” Humphries explained. “Why would I go to a school where I would be such a big fish in such a little pond? Or I could come here and kind of learn every day, develop and be a normal sized fish and the same as everyone else.”

Labissiere comes to Kentucky as the No. 1 or No. 2 ranked prospect in the country, depending on which recruiting service you go to. Additionally, multiple national outlets project the long 6-foot-11 forward to be the No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.

“I’ll find any way that can make me better,” Labissiere said. “I thought coming here was going to make me better so that’s what I chose to do. I remember coming here on my visit and I saw what the level of competition was – there was nothing compared to this at the other schools I visited. I love competition, I love getting better, I love playing against the best because that’s going to make me a better player.”

Mulder, a junior-college transfer out of Vincennes University, hails from Windsor, Ontario. The humble, hard-working player went the junior-college route in order to get more publicity after playing north of the border. He was successful in that quest, leading the Trailblazers to a 33-2 record as he earned Junior College All-America honors as a sophomore and connected on over 46 percent of his 3-point attempts.

“Fans can expect to see a kid who works hard and someone who they know they can trust that by the end of the game he’s still going 100 percent,” Mulder said. “They’re not going to see any laziness or attitude, ego or nothing like that. Coming from where I came from it’s not like I was really rubbed out a whole lot. It’s all about working hard, and I feel like that’s what they want to see from me, so that’s what they’ll get.”

Murray comes to UK after a very successful summer in which he helped lead the Canadian senior men’s national team to a silver-medal finish at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. The 6-4 guard who, like Humphries, reclassified to 2016, was the talk of the tournament, averaging 16.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists, including a 22-point outing against USA in the semifinals in which he scored all of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“This is a different level of passion that you have to have if you’re going to come here,” Murray said. “You have to be determined each and every day, even if you don’t want to play. Coach Kenny (Payne) calls you and says go work out. We’re on call here it feels like. It’s like one of those jobs where you go into work and you leave, but then they call you and say you have to do overtime. It’s one of those ones, but that’s what I like about it.”

In early pick-up games and practices, each of the four international players have shown glimpses of what they can do and how their respective games can push the Cats over the top in their pursuit of their ninth national championship.

Humphries is a 7-footer with a big frame who can bang in the post as well as face up and bury a 15-foot jump shot. Labissiere has shown a number of moves in practice that make you realize why he was tabbed as one of the top prospects in the country. He can hit jumpers, has a beautiful baby hook and can sky for rebounds and put-backs. Mulder, a great athlete, has shown that if you give him space he will make you pay. Murray has great vision, can hit shots and is deceptively athletic.

Despite their different backgrounds, senior Alex Poythress says they play the same as anybody else.

“Everybody is competing out there,” Poythress said. “Players play the same. They play like normal players. They’re athletes, they’re smart and they know how to play basketball.”

Off the court is where the differences come into play.

“Isaac’s car is different,” junior guard EJ Floreal said. “First off, it’s yellow. I haven’t seen very many yellow cars. And it’s a convertible, but it looks like an old-school convertible and it’s got weird language. It’s definitely the most interesting car I’ve seen in a very long time. Jamal, he’s hilarious. He’s pretty outspoken and outgoing. I guess trying to fit in with this team you have to be at some point in time. Mike, Mike always has a smile. That’d be about him. Same with Skal. Those two are always smiling, upbeat and happy.”

Labissiere, who was inside his house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as it crumbled from the tragic 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that hit just 16 miles away, came to Kentucky because of his love for competition and to push himself to be the best. What he’s gotten is not only that, but a brotherhood of people from many different backgrounds.

“We get to learn a little bit more about each other, about the different places we came from and I like it that way,” Labissiere said. “It’s not just mainly Americans on the team, so I think it’s been pretty good. We have guys from Canada, Australia, me, myself from Haiti. So it’s been pretty fun.”

Being from a different land has brought about different cultures, habits and routines. Sometimes the American players say they find themselves just sitting down talking with the international guys just to learn more about them and their ways, a nice byproduct of their different backgrounds, even if they can’t all get their names right.

“It’s been good,” junior guard Dominique Hawkins said. “It’s really different for me, learning from their backgrounds and stuff. I still can’t say Skal’s last name, (but) it’s really nice to meet people from different countries.”
Under head coach John Calipari, the Kentucky men’s basketball team has always had a few traits that every member of the Big Blue Nation has grown to expect.

The Cats are going to be one of the most talented teams in the country, if not the most talented team. They’re going to play stingy defense, throw plenty of lobs for dunks and win nearly every game they play at historic Rupp Arena. They’re going to be one of the most talked about and dissected teams in the country, and they’re going to boost TV ratings.

This all may sound a bit brash, but it’s also true, and it’s enough for the legions of Kentucky basketball fans spanning the globe to salivate over the anticipation of a new season.

Just like each of Calipari’s first six teams at Kentucky, his seventh is filled with great talent, including a number of McDonald’s All-Americans and top-50 ranked prospects. But there’s one thing the 2015-16 Wildcats have more of than any other team Calipari has coached at Kentucky: international players.

“It’s pretty interesting,” Canadian junior wing Mychal Mulder said. “You don’t really see that a lot. We probably have the most international players in the NCAA of anybody I can think of. The NBA’s starting to look like that a little bit, but not so much at our level. I think it’s great. It’s great to see basketball at all areas all around the world and it’s great to see them come together.”

Mulder is one of four international players on the roster this season. He’s joined by Isaac Humphries from Australia, Skal Labissiere from Haiti, and Jamal Murray, a Kitchener, Ontario native. In all, the four international players on the Wildcats’ roster this year match the total Calipari has signed in his previous six years in Lexington combined.

“I don’t really care where they’re from, if they have a tattoo, what color they are,” Calipari said. “None of that ever – you saying that gets me like, huh? I went into a home one time, ‘How many white players do you have?’ ‘Let me think. I don’t know. Is he white? Is he black? I don’t know. Does that matter?’ … They’re players.”

The 2010-11 Wildcats had Enes Kanter, a Turkey native who never played a game with UK but practiced each day, and Eloy Vargas, a Dominican Republic native who also played the following year. This past season, Kentucky had a pair of future lottery picks in Trey Lyles of Canada, and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Dominican Republic.

The recent surge of foreign players hasn’t been some master plan the newly minted Hall of Fame coach has devised though. Instead, Calipari says this is just how it’s gone, but there is a common trait that Humphries, Labissiere, Mulder and Murray share that he looks for in all of his recruits, which is an eagerness to embrace all that Kentucky entails.

“You’re recruiting guys who don’t want to run from this,” Calipari said. “This is what they want. Whether they’re from Lexington, Ky., or Toronto, Canada, or from Australia or New Zealand, who wants this? Because guys who play here, they’ll tell you – you’ve got to want this. It’s not something you can run from. You’ve got to run at it. And those are the guys that come here and have success. So it’s not been by design. But again, the guys we have, I don’t care where they’re from, they’re pretty good players.”

He’s certainly right about that.

At the 2014 FIBA U-17 World Championship, Humphries helped guide Australia to the finals against Team USA by averaging 18.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in seven games. His scoring and rebounding averages each ranked third in the entire tournament, while his 3.3 blocks per game were tied for the second most. During Australia’s run to silver, he scored 41 points and grabbed 19 rebounds against Murray’s Canadian team.

“When I was making my decision I was talking to my mom and she said, ‘You should fly with the eagles instead of walk with the turkeys,’ ” Humphries explained. “Why would I go to a school where I would be such a big fish in such a little pond? Or I could come here and kind of learn every day, develop and be a normal sized fish and the same as everyone else.”

Labissiere comes to Kentucky as the No. 1 or No. 2 ranked prospect in the country, depending on which recruiting service you go to. Additionally, multiple national outlets project the long 6-foot-11 forward to be the No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.

“I’ll find any way that can make me better,” Labissiere said. “I thought coming here was going to make me better so that’s what I chose to do. I remember coming here on my visit and I saw what the level of competition was – there was nothing compared to this at the other schools I visited. I love competition, I love getting better, I love playing against the best because that’s going to make me a better player.”

Mulder, a junior-college transfer out of Vincennes University, hails from Windsor, Ontario. The humble, hard-working player went the junior-college route in order to get more publicity after playing north of the border. He was successful in that quest, leading the Trailblazers to a 33-2 record as he earned Junior College All-America honors as a sophomore and connected on over 46 percent of his 3-point attempts.

“Fans can expect to see a kid who works hard and someone who they know they can trust that by the end of the game he’s still going 100 percent,” Mulder said. “They’re not going to see any laziness or attitude, ego or nothing like that. Coming from where I came from it’s not like I was really rubbed out a whole lot. It’s all about working hard, and I feel like that’s what they want to see from me, so that’s what they’ll get.”

Murray comes to UK after a very successful summer in which he helped lead the Canadian senior men’s national team to a silver-medal finish at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. The 6-4 guard who, like Humphries, reclassified to 2016, was the talk of the tournament, averaging 16.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists, including a 22-point outing against USA in the semifinals in which he scored all of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“This is a different level of passion that you have to have if you’re going to come here,” Murray said. “You have to be determined each and every day, even if you don’t want to play. Coach Kenny (Payne) calls you and says go work out. We’re on call here it feels like. It’s like one of those jobs where you go into work and you leave, but then they call you and say you have to do overtime. It’s one of those ones, but that’s what I like about it.”

In early pick-up games and practices, each of the four international players have shown glimpses of what they can do and how their respective games can push the Cats over the top in their pursuit of their ninth national championship.

Humphries is a 7-footer with a big frame who can bang in the post as well as face up and bury a 15-foot jump shot. Labissiere has shown a number of moves in practice that make you realize why he was tabbed as one of the top prospects in the country. He can hit jumpers, has a beautiful baby hook and can sky for rebounds and put-backs. Mulder, a great athlete, has shown that if you give him space he will make you pay. Murray has great vision, can hit shots and is deceptively athletic.

Despite their different backgrounds, senior Alex Poythress says they play the same as anybody else.

“Everybody is competing out there,” Poythress said. “Players play the same. They play like normal players. They’re athletes, they’re smart and they know how to play basketball.”

Off the court is where the differences come into play.

“Isaac’s car is different,” junior guard EJ Floreal said. “First off, it’s yellow. I haven’t seen very many yellow cars. And it’s a convertible, but it looks like an old-school convertible and it’s got weird language. It’s definitely the most interesting car I’ve seen in a very long time. Jamal, he’s hilarious. He’s pretty outspoken and outgoing. I guess trying to fit in with this team you have to be at some point in time. Mike, Mike always has a smile. That’d be about him. Same with Skal. Those two are always smiling, upbeat and happy.”

Labissiere, who was inside his house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as it crumbled from the tragic 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that hit just 16 miles away, came to Kentucky because of his love for competition and to push himself to be the best. What he’s gotten is not only that, but a brotherhood of people from many different backgrounds.

“We get to learn a little bit more about each other, about the different places we came from and I like it that way,” Labissiere said. “It’s not just mainly Americans on the team, so I think it’s been pretty good. We have guys from Canada, Australia, me, myself from Haiti. So it’s been pretty fun.”

Being from a different land has brought about different cultures, habits and routines. Sometimes the American players say they find themselves just sitting down talking with the international guys just to learn more about them and their ways, a nice byproduct of their different backgrounds, even if they can’t all get their names right.

“It’s been good,” junior guard Dominique Hawkins said. “It’s really different for me, learning from their backgrounds and stuff. I still can’t say Skal’s last name, (but) it’s really nice to meet people from different countries.”

“They come with a different culture,” junior forward Marcus Lee said. “It’s good to learn from them and they learn from us. It’s been really fun to learn different things and learn about each other.”

One thing that plays in any country, though, and translates over in any language, is winning. That’s what this group of four hopes to do at Kentucky.

“(Kentucky is) a program that’s willing to reach out to any good player,” Murray said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. I like that. Nobody really knows Kitchener. A guy coming from Kitchener is incredible. It’s been a different experience for me and I know the same thing for Skal and Isaac (and Mychal). We’re just all guys on a mission and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I want to put the work in and get the job done.”

“They come with a different culture,” junior forward Marcus Lee said. “It’s good to learn from them and they learn from us. It’s been really fun to learn different things and learn about each other.”

One thing that plays in any country, though, and translates over in any language, is winning. That’s what this group of four hopes to do at Kentucky.

“(Kentucky is) a program that’s willing to reach out to any good player,” Murray said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. I like that. Nobody really knows Kitchener. A guy coming from Kitchener is incredible. It’s been a different experience for me and I know the same thing for Skal and Isaac (and Mychal). We’re just all guys on a mission and it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I want to put the work in and get the job done.”