The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Kyle Tucker

Posted by Chris Stone on November 9th, 2016

RTC interviews one on one

The college basketball season is now less than a week away and one of the sports premier programs resides in Lexington, Kentucky. We reached out to SECCountry.com‘s Kentucky basketball beat writer Kyle Tucker to discuss his time covering the Wildcats and what to expect in the upcoming season. The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Rush the Court: You’re currently the Kentucky beat writer for SECCountry.com. Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up there?

Kyle Tucker: I was covering Virginia Tech for eight years and then wanted to get a little closer to home. I’m from near Nashville, Tennessee, and knew that the Kentucky beat was coming open at the Courier-Journal in Louisville. I got that job and covered Kentucky football and basketball for five years at the Courier-Journal and then got a call that the Atlanta Journal Constitution was starting a new website to cover the league, SECCountry.com, and talked with them for a while. I’m their football columnist in the fall and cover Kentucky basketball, same as I did before, during basketball season. That’s how we got here.

John Calipari is ready for another year at the helm. (USA Today Images)

John Calipari is ready for another year at the helm. (USA TODAY Sports)

RTC: You’ve been on the Kentucky beat for a while. What’s the most memorable Kentucky game you’ve covered?

Tucker: It’s a tough call between all of the Aaron Harrison late three-pointers in the Sweet Sixteen against Louisville, Elite Eight against Michigan, and Final Four against Wisconsin and then the 2011-12 Indiana regular season game that they lost on the [Christian] Watford buzzer beater and they rushed the court. It was the craziest court-storming I’d ever seen. Even though those NCAA Tournament games were really jaw-dropping, I think probably [Indiana] was the craziest, most fun game I’ve ever covered, period, because the crowd was electric and against Kentucky the whole day. It was one of the best home court advantages I’ve ever seen and it was just bonkers in there after Watford hit that shot. Also because I think that moment and the sting of that really did propel that 2012 National Championship team at Kentucky to play better and really lock in. They were definitely the most talented team in the country and that was their one wake-up call and the rest of the way they pretty much mowed everybody down. They wanted to get back and face Indiana again in the Tournament and they did and played another classic game in the Sweet Sixteen of that NCAA Tournament.

RTC: Alright, the last historical question. Who has been your favorite Kentucky interview over the years?

Tucker: Well, one of my favorite people was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He’s probably my favorite person that I’ve covered because he was a great human being and we found out pretty early that he had a speech impediment that he was working through and getting some training and it was hard for him. But he never shied away from it. He wanted to do it. He wanted to do the interviews and it was almost like he was happy every time he saw us. He wasn’t a great quote, but it was always great to talk to him. You always came away feeling good after talking to that kid. And he played so hard. He plays the way anybody wants to see a high-level athlete play, just all out all the time. In terms of having an actual, genuine affection for a guy that I covered, I really liked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Willie Cauley-Stein Looks to Cut More Nets (USA Today Images)

Willie Cauley-Stein knows what to do in front of a microphone. (USA TODAY Sports)

Probably the best actual interview — and I won’t be the only one saying this for anyone that covered Kentucky, but — Willie Cauley-Stein, hands down, because you just never knew what he was going to say. He was wonderfully weird and embraced that. We always had a lot of fun with him. Unlike a lot of [John] Calipari guys, he stuck around three years, so we got a lot of him. That was great.

RTC: Shifting to this year’s team, they’ve had some practices already that I’m sure you’ve gotten to take a look at. What sticks out to you about this team early on in the process?

Tucker: Speed. They’re going to be really fast, super-athletic. I think Calipari believes, and a lot of people that have seen them believe, this could be his most athletic team ever. They could be the best defensive team in the country. I think that’s the plan with three guards, three former McDonald’s All-Americans in the backcourt. [Isaiah] Briscoe, [De’Aaron] Fox, and [Malik] Monk are just going to blow some people’s doors off, I think, and they’re going to really harass them defensively and try to run away from them offensively. They’re going to be fast. That’s what stands out to me. It’s a really athletic, quick-moving team. They’re going to struggle some nights because I don’t know that they have consistent enough three-point shooting. Derek Willis is probably the most consistent guy. Malik Monk is the guy who will hit eight one night and miss eight the next, but other than that, I think there are going to be a lot of nights where they’re just dizzying to try to keep up with for the other side.

RTC: That makes sense to me. You mentioned Derek Willis. To me, that’s kind of the biggest question mark with the Kentucky team this year — whether or not they’re going to have somebody to space the floor on offense effectively. How much do you think Calipari will come to rely on Derek Willis?

Tucker: Oh, I think he’s huge. It’s one of the reasons that they and he have focused so much on his defense because they need to be able to leave him on the floor. He was a huge defensive liability sometimes last year. Calipari ripped his defense pretty openly, repeatedly. He ripped his own defense repeatedly. I think after the last game last year, he sat in his locker and told me, “I’ve got to better. I can’t score all these points on one end and give them right back on the other. I know he can’t play me if I’m going to do that.” He understands. He added a lot of weight. He got a lot stronger. He said he can get lower in a defensive stance and hold it longer. You can hold your ground if you get stronger, so he made that a priority. If he can play competent defense, they’re going to leave him on the floor a bunch because he is a great shotmaker. He shot 50 percent from three in SEC play and really came out of nowhere. It was sort of shocking for those of us who had watched him basically not play for two years at all. He had 28 points for the season as a sophomore and he scored 28 in a game last year, so he really came out of nowhere. He made himself a weapon and they need it.

Want some thunder and lightning? Tune in when these two coaches go at it. (AP)

Want some thunder and lightning? Tune in when these two coaches go at it. (AP)

RTC: Absolutely. Last year, it seemed like Willis was the surprise on that team. Maybe not to the same extent this year, but is there somebody between all the talented guys coming back or the new guys coming in who you think will surprise college basketball fans this year?

Tucker: Probably Isaac Humphries. He’s had this knee injury that’s kind of bugging him. He’s missed a few practices, but assuming that’s nothing major, I think they expect a lot out of Isaac Humphries, the seven-footer from Australia who could have still been in high school last year. He enrolled early. He couldn’t have gone to the NBA. He wasn’t even old enough. He had to stay two years. He knew that going in. I think he viewed last year as a bonus year to learn everything he could. He played a little here and there. In the Texas A&M game, he came in because they had foul trouble. He had 12 rebounds and had a huge game. Then, of course, unfortunately for him it ended on the memorable, accidental celebratory spike that drew a technical and ultimately lost them that game in overtime. But he showed some flashes. He’s totally changed his body. He’s lost 20 or 30 pounds, really gotten stronger and leaner and better conditioned. The reviews of his play in practice all summer in pickup games has been great. I think they think they have something special in him. Bam Adebayo is going to be the guy that dominates the headlines and probably the stat sheet, but if they need him — and whenever they need him — I think Isaac Humphries is going to have a big year for them.

RTC: Alright, I’ll get you out of here with our last question. We talked to Andrew Carter and one of the questions we asked him about was the Duke-UNC rivalry. So, you’ve covered Kentucky for five years, what’s your argument for Kentucky-Louisville being the best rivalry in college basketball?

Tucker: Well, I believe it was during their 2012 national championship run, two men got in a fight — a Kentucky and a Louisville fan — which is not uncommon fan behavior, except they were getting dialysis treatment next to each other and they got in a fight over the Kentucky-Louisville game. I think it was a pretty serious, heated, physical fight between two elderly men getting dialysis treatment. You hear stories like that left and right. It is an intense and sometimes vicious, not infrequently juvenile and immature back-and-forth between the fans.

It’s interesting because I don’t know with the players if it’s that bitter of a thing for most of the players because Kentucky cycles new guys in and out so often, but when that game tips off, it’s electric and it can be nasty. There was the scandal last year that fans thought they saw Rick Pitino flip them off. It sure looked like he did. He continues to deny it, but that whole dynamic because Louisville now has Kentucky’s coach — the coach who they loved and led them out of the darkness of probation and got them back to win the National Championship and be that premier program again. He coached probably the best team, I think, in college basketball history, that 1996 Kentucky team, or at least certainly one that’s in the conversation. And now he’s at Louisville. He’s also been embroiled in some of these scandals, so it’s easy to poke fun at him. There’s a lot of fuel for that rivalry. There’s a lot of reasons and emotions. In this state, basketball is king. It is the most important thing to a lot of people and the battle lines are drawn there. The two sides, the two fan bases, they hate each other. I don’t think the two coaches like each other very much either. You have two of the most polarizing coaches in college basketball with Pitino and Calipari, so it’s a lot of fun. I think certainly Kentucky-Louisville and Duke-Carolina are without a doubt the two best rivalries in college basketball and I would put them basically 1A and 1B.

Chris Stone (128 Posts)

Chris Stone is a contributor to the Big 12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @cstonehoops.


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