Wildcats Hope Offseason Workouts Breed Championship Success


It’s 5 a.m. and freshman forward Sacha Killeya-Jones isn’t quite ready to wake up yet. 

For Killeya-Jones – and many other Wildcats, freshmen and seniors alike – each morning represents a tug-of-war between that annoying alarm clock and getting up and embracing the grind of offseason workouts.

Ten minutes later the alarm goes off again. Just a little more sleep. Five minutes later it rings once more. Almost ready, just a little more sleep. It’s now three minutes until 5:30 and Killeya-Jones is still fighting the now increasingly frequent alarms.

“I set like eight alarms because I’ve always been bad at getting up,” Killeya-Jones said.

He’s not the only one.

“(I set) like six (alarms),” fellow freshman Brad Calipari said. “I’ll get so nervous that I’m not going to wake up, so I just set them over and over again.”

The workout of fighting the alarm clock serves as a primer for what they’re about to face with strength and conditioning coach Rob Harris.

The team gets in vans to head across campus to Nutter Field House at 5:30 in the morning. There, they run for an hour before lifting for an hour. Occasionally, running in the sandpit will precede running on the turf, a “miserable” experience, as Calipari describes it.

After eating breakfast and a bit of downtime, they head off to class. It’s a brutal way to start the day, especially in the summertime, but the hard work has many benefits in addition to getting in better shape, including the growth of team chemistry, a fundamental, cornerstone piece to any championship team.

“When you’re doing the hard workouts and everything at 6 in the morning, the only people you look to are the person to your left and your right,” Killeya-Jones said. “That’s your teammates and that’s who’s going to be at war with you during the season.”

The workouts have already paid dividends physically.

Sophomore forward Isaac Humphries is noticeably trimmer. The Australian native has lost around 15 pounds since the start of his freshman year and has replaced body fat this summer with muscle.

“(I feel) a lot quicker and lighter,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable and confident to be able to do the things that are expected of a Kentucky basketball player, just with the athleticism side of things and stuff like that. Just a lot more comfortable.”

Killeya-Jones, on the other hand, is trying to add weight. In mid-September he tweeted a video of himself on a scale weighing in at 236 pounds, a 12-pound increase from his listed weight in the preseason prospectus.

Wenyen Gabriel has also worked to add weight and muscle to his frame to allow him to both dish out and absorb the blows that come with playing at the collegiate level. Similarly, freshmen guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have both gotten stronger in their upper bodies, allowing them to finish better through contact as they drive to the basket.

“They’re better,” head coach John Calipari said. “Wenyen’s way better. Wenyen’s got bumps in his legs. He’s got a ways to go but he’s gotten stronger.”

The workouts are a bear, but they’re being welcomed by each player on the team because of a collective desire to raise a ninth championship banner into the Rupp Arena rafters.

“Sometimes I’m tired, but we gotta do this if we want to be great,” Killeya-Jones said of the workouts. “We want to do the best we can. Nobody’s ever complaining about it. We’re all really grateful that we have this opportunity to work out and be in the best situation possible and have coaches and trainers and everybody around us to help us get better. We’re taking full advantage of it.”

In addition to each of the aforementioned benefits, the arduous offseason workout program should also help the Wildcats as they look to replace a whopping seven players from last year’s team. Those seven Wildcats played more than 69 percent of UK’s total minutes, accounted for nearly 76 percent of UK’s scoring and 70 percent of its rebounding.

To say Kentucky has to replace a lot of its production would be quite the understatement.

Together, Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray averaged 37.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 9.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game. They each averaged over 35 minutes per game, with Ulis nearly logging over 37 minutes per game in Southeastern Conference action.

Kentucky does, however, return one huge piece from last year’s team in sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, to whom Calipari has handed the keys. Briscoe, despite his sophomore standing, is UK’s leading returner in many major statistical categories, including minutes, scoring and rebounding. In the frontcourt, Kentucky returns only Humphries as someone who played primarily in the paint. There’s also forward Derek Willis, who will be Kentucky’s top returning 3-point shooter.

Part of the reason the Wildcats carry such high expectations this season, despite losing so much from last year’s 27-9 team, is the belief in Kentucky’s top-rated freshman class and frontcourt additions.

CBS college basketball insider Jon Rothstein pegged freshman Edrice “Bam” Adebayo as his SEC Player of the Year, and one-third of his 15 impact SEC freshmen were UK rookies.

As is the case every year – and as is the case with every team in the country – Kentucky will enter the season attempting to win every game it plays. After winning its 47th SEC regular season championship and its 29th SEC Tournament title last year, UK will attempt to bring home Nos. 48 and 30, respectively this season.

“Obviously, the end goal is to win that last game in March,” Mychal Mulder said, “but coming to Kentucky we have a lot of people behind us that want us to win and succeed.”

It’s hard to see the big picture at 5:30 in the morning lunging and sprinting through a cold sand pit or lifting weights prior to the sunrise. The grind of a long season begins with one annoying alarm clock ring after another. But the end goal is to have one game buzzer sound and confetti rain down.

“My goal is to win a national championship, and I feel like it’s not farfetched,” Fox said. “I feel like we have every piece to do it. … I feel like we can win a SEC championship, take all that momentum and try to win a national championship – try to bring No. 9 to Kentucky.”