JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Kentucky freshman Immanuel Quickley doesn’t have that many specific memories of the NCAA tournament, but they all seem to involve the play of high-scoring guards.
The most impactful for Quickley as he was growing up outside Baltimore was watching Stephen Curry lead a lesser-known bunch of Wildcats from little Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008.
“That was probably one of the coolest moments, I think,” Quickley said Wednesday, sitting in the corner of a crowded dressing room at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. “I had never heard of Davidson.”
There were others, too, like Kemba Walker leading Connecticut to the national championship three years later and Jimmer Fredette helping BYU reach the Sweet 16 the same season.
Interestingly, no Kentucky players registered with Quickley.
Asked who he rooted for growing up, Quickley said: “It definitely wasn’t Kentucky. I wouldn’t have imagined myself being here today.”
Starting Thursday night, when the second-seeded Wildcats play Abilene Christian in a Midwest Region Round of 64 game, the former John Carroll star and 2018 McDonald’s All American will try to start having his own shining March moments.
It doesn’t seem any different than his first 33 college games.
“Not really, honestly,” he said. “I think maybe watching it on TV it’s definitely bigger, but when you’re out there as a player, they’re all the same. You go into the game and you just try to play hard, to give everything you’ve got to your team and hopefully come out with a win.”
What’s apparent is Quickley has quietly found his comfort zone with the Wildcats, and coach John Calipari in particular. After starting seven of his first eight games, Quickley struggled with his shot and, at times, his confidence.
With all the talk of Quickley being one of the next in a long line of recent one-and-dones for the Wildcats when he came out of high school, there were questions about whether the 6-foot-3 guard might be just a reliable role player off the bench rather than a potential college star.
Quickley said Wednesday that his shooting woes, including a 7-for-33 stretch in 10 games and a Feb. 16 win over then-No. 1 Tennessee in which he didn’t take a shot in 12 minutes, were a bit unsettling.
“It was a little bit of surprise, but at the same time I knew they were going to start to fall eventually,” Quickley said. “I just had to get into a groove, get into my rhythm and find my spots on the floor and I think I’ve started to find that as of late.”
Over the past eight games, Quickley’s shooting has improved, with him hitting 12 of 26 from the field, including eight of 14 3-pointers.
Finding a rhythm with his shooting has been a challenge for a player taking fewer than four shots a game.
“It’s definitely a little different, but I’m getting used to it now,” said Quickley, who is averaging 5.5 points in 18.6 minutes a game. “Just come with the mindset of being aggressive. That helps a lot. When you come in with the mindset of being a passer, just kind of finding your way in, sometimes you come in, not necessarily timid but with your foot off the gas. I just want to come with the mindset that I can help the team anyway I can.”
Asked if he has done anything different, Quickley said: “Nothing really different. I just stayed on the track that I was going, continuing to keep going to the gym, believing in myself, coaches and teammates keep believing in me and the shots just started to fall, so it’s been good.”
Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus credits Quickley’s work ethic for helping him overcome the shooting struggles and the normal adjustment from high school to college.
“I think he's a guy who comes to work every single day,” Justus said Wednesday. “It was evident of Immanuel even in the recruiting process. He was a guy that was hard-working, tremendous family, great kid and a big part of who he is as a player today is who he was growing up. He’s a hard-working guy.”
Calipari said he can see a difference.
“Immanuel Quickey has probably improved as much, if not more than anybody on our team,” Calipari said Wednesday. “He’s another one that lives in the gym. I’m trying to slow down his mind. In this game we play, you can have your feet move real fast, but your feet can’t move faster than your mind. Getting him to slow down his mind so that he can read stuff better.”
In turn, Quickley credits Calipari for the tough-love coaching he is known to offer.
“He’s been a great coach for me. He’s kept it real with me,” Quickley said. “He’s really tough, especially on his point guards. There’s been a lot of stuff I’ve learned that I might not have known in high school.”
Not that he expects to see his role expand dramatically during this year’s NCAA tournament, Quickley certainly wouldn't mind someday doing what Curry, Walker and Fredette once did in college.
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“If I can do anything like they did, that would be crazy,” Quickley said. “That will be great. I’m just going to do what I do, which is come out and play hard each and every possession and give my team a chance to win.”