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‘Without him, we’re not here’: John Carroll grad Immanuel Quickley has become go-to player for Kentucky

Kentucky's Immanuel Quickley, middle, and the rest of the Wildcats leave the court after a 76-74 win against Texas Tech at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas, on January 25, 2020.
Kentucky's Immanuel Quickley, middle, and the rest of the Wildcats leave the court after a 76-74 win against Texas Tech at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas, on January 25, 2020. (John E. Moore III/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari said Monday that he texted Immanuel Quickley the day before and told the team’s leading scorer to stay away from basketball Sunday and Monday to help heal an ailing back.

Something must have gotten lost in translation because Quickley, the Havre de Grace resident and John Carroll graduate, admitted that he went to the practice gym Sunday and hoisted about 250 to 300 shots in 25 minutes. But the sophomore said Monday that he planned to get treatment, take an exam and otherwise honor his coach’s request.

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“Just trying to be obedient,” he said. “But I’m definitely going to be bored when I can’t touch a basketball today.”

Calipari did not sound displeased that Quickley could not resist returning to the gym on what should have been an off day.

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“He’s one of those kids that just is obsessed with being in the gym and working and not backing off and spending more time and expecting more,” said the third-winningest active NCAA Division I coach. “That’s who he is, and it’s come through. He has played so well and has helped us win games. Without him, we’re not here.”

It’s difficult to get angry with a player who has averaged 16.1 points and also leads the offense in 3-point field-goal percentage (.428) and free-throw percentage (.923). And as Calipari pointed out, Quickley, who was named SEC Player of the Year on Tuesday, has been instrumental in helping the No. 8 Wildcats (25-6, 15-3) capture their 49th league regular-season championship and enter this week’s SEC tournament as the No. 1 seed. They earned a double-bye and will not have to play until the quarterfinal round Friday.

Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley shoots a 3-pointer as Texas A&M guard Quenton Jackson defends during the first half Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in College Station, Texas.
Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley shoots a 3-pointer as Texas A&M guard Quenton Jackson defends during the first half Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in College Station, Texas. (Sam Craft/AP)

Quickley’s improvement from a freshman season in which he averaged 5.2 points and shot 34.5% from 3-point range and 82.8% from the free-throw line stems from what he said has been a stronger grasp of the mental aspect of playing basketball.

“Basketball-wise, the game is a lot slower,” he said. “I think in my freshman year, the game was probably a little faster. But just working with the coaches and watching film and things like that, it really helped me out on the court. … This year, I could see a couple steps ahead, and I was able to react faster and act more efficiently on offense and defense.”

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Physically, Quickley is still 6 feet 3, and his listed weight of 188 pounds is only three pounds heavier than last year’s measurement. But he said he has increased his bench press from 175 to 215 pounds and completes 60 to 100 pushups before he goes to sleep every night.

“Offensively, I’m able to play through bumps, and that in turns helps me to be able to create for myself and create for others,” he said. “And on defense, I’m able to guard bigger players, faster players, stronger players. This year, I’ve had to guard bigger players just because teams have played three guards and stuff like that. So being able to stay in physical shape has been a pretty big key for me.”

Quickley played only 21 minutes before fouling out with about nine minutes remaining in Saturday’s 71-70 win at Florida, but he did finish with 12 points. That made him only the third player during Calipari’s tenure to score double digits against every SEC opponent this season, joining the likes of Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Knight in 2011 and Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray in 2016.

Quickley could be in the conversation for first-team All-America, which he acknowledged was something he had overlooked in the preseason.

“I had a lot of goals going into the season, but being a first-team All American would be something that I didn’t really have as one of my goals,” he said. "So that would definitely be something cool.”

Without Quickley for a significant portion of the second half on Saturday, the Wildcats leaned on junior forward Nick Richards’ 19 points (17 in the second half), freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr.’s 10 points and freshman guard Johnny Juzang’s 10 points off the bench to rally from an 18-point deficit to overtake the Gators. The ability to look to someone other than Quickley was viewed as a positive by Calipari.

“In the last game, he fouls out with 10 minutes to go, and we win without him. That’s always good, humbling,” Calipari said. “It’s a humbling situation. But I said after the game, one of the big things to happen for us was Immanuel fouling out, and they all laughed. But the point being, look, be humble about this.”

Arrogance is not a problem with Quickley, who dismissed the notion that Kentucky’s chance of making a deep run in the SEC and NCAA postseason rests on him.

“I think we’ve got a lot of good pieces on this team,” he said. “I try to come out and play hard and produce every night and just be locked in that way so that my team can always count on me. But I think there’s a lot of pieces to this team that if everyone comes together and plays well, we’ll be fine.”

Two weeks ago, Quickley made his debut in a mock NBA draft as the 40th-ranked player among the top 100 potential picks.

Being sought after by NBA franchises is every college player’s dream, but Quickley said that is not his primary concern.

“I guess you have to consider it, but I’m really just trying to stay locked in for this season,” he said. “I’m a big person on just staying in the present moment. That’s kind of what has propelled me this whole year — not worrying about anything like that and just staying in the present moment. I’m worrying about this tournament and the NCAA tournament and my team.”

SEC quarterfinals

Nashville, Tennessee

NO. 1 SEED KENTUCKY VS. TBD

Friday, 1 p.m.

TV: ESPN

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