Malone out to prove he can play at Division I level

With the exception of Terrence Jones’ alley-oop dunk in the first half, Wednesday’s 44-point whipping of Radford provided few exhilarating moments.

For those that left early and headed for the exits before John Calipari had a chance to unload his bench, however, they missed perhaps the moment of the game by none other than freshman walk-on Sam Malone. In fact, Jones called it “the best play of the game.”

He wasn’t kidding.

With about a minute and a half left, Malone grabbed a long rebound and raced down the court in a 1-on-2 transition opportunity. At the time, Malone had no clue what he was going to do.

“I was just planning on getting to the hoop,” Malone said.

He did so impressively. As Radford’s Briand Darden closed at the free-throw line, Malone faked like he was going outside with his right hand and crossed it back inside for the layup.

“I don’t really know what happened,” Malone admitted Friday. “I did a little in and out and I guess he bit it.”

He bit hard. It’s called breaking someone’s ankles in the basketball world.

Darden, in fact, left the court with both ankles intact, but he walked off the hardwood with his pride broken after getting left in the dust.

The Basics

What: No. 2/2 UK (5-0) vs. Portland (2-3)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK
Video interviews: Cal, Teague and Malone 

Portland File

Record: 2-3
Head coach: Eric Reveno (80-84 at Portland)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Pilots
Conference: West Coast Conference
Player to watch: Ryan Nicholas (11.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg)
Series history: UK leads 2-0
Last meeting: UK won 79-48 last season

TV/Radio Coverage

Radio: UK IMG
Live stats: Gametracker
Live stream: ESPN3

Meanwhile, as Malone raced to the other end of the floor, Kentucky’s starters, now sitting on the bench, jumped off their seats, waved towels and laughed uncontrollably. John Calipari, almost incredulous, shook his head and smiled.

“The bench is the best part, really,” Malone said. “I love to see them get off the bench. It makes it really fun for me. … They’re all great guys and I really appreciate them getting off the bench for me.”

In seven minutes of mop-up duty, Malone has shot the ball five times, making three. He has six points on the year, five more than scholarship sophomore Jarrod Polson, and if you want to get technical about it, his 0.86 points-per-minute average is far and away the best on the team.

Granted, Malone’s played just seven minutes when the game is already determined, but for some perspective, leading scorer Doron Lamb averages 0.52 points for every minute he plays.

“He isn’t shy,” Jones said. “That’s one thing. Jarrod was shy last year, Brian (Long) is still a little bit shy this year, but Sam, he just goes out there and plays like he’s played before.”

In other words, when Malone takes the floor in late-game blowouts and the fans implore the Wildcats to shoot it, “They’re not talking to Sam,” Jones said.

“I like feeding off the crowd a little bit,” Malone said. “They get me excited. I know I’m not going to get yelled at from Coach if I shoot it so I might as well throw it up.”

Freshman walk-on Sam Malone has made the most of his limited opportunities this year, scoring six points in seven minutes of play. (photo by Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)

Malone’s willingness to shoot early and often, as entertaining it may be, isn’t any sort of selfishness or showmanship. Deep down, Malone believes he can play at this level. He says he’s “comfortable” playing with some of the nation’s most talented players.

“When I first got here I felt like (I was in over my head), and maybe offensively I’m still a bit over my head, but I feel like I can play defense against these guys for the most part,” Malone said. “They’re the best athletes in the country and I’m 5-11. I like to think in my own head that I belong on the court with them.”

Malone believes he would have earned a scholarship somewhere had he not been the victim of three injuries in high school. The native of Scituate, Mass., tore his anterior cruciate ligament his freshman year, tore his meniscus his junior season at the Tilton School (N.H.) and then underwent microfracture surgery his senior year.

“I always had another injury,” Malone said. “I really think I would have made it to that level if that didn’t happen. My legs are feeling good now, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m out to prove I can play at this level.”

Malone, like fellow walk-on Brian Long, earned a spot on the team because of his father’s relationship with  Calipari.

In 1996, Malone’s father sent Coach Cal a note of admiration for the way Calipari, then the coach at Massachusetts, took responsibility for a loss to Kentucky. A few days later, Calipari called Joe Malone and invited him to a UMass game the next year. The two have stayed close since.

But Malone is trying to prove he deserves to be on the court with everyone else, and he’s putting in the work to show he belongs. Malone said he looks to Polson as a person he aspires to be. Polson earned a scholarship with Kentucky after initially agreeing to join the program as a walk-on.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Malone said. “I think if I keep getting better I can get into practice more often, and that’s really my goal.”

Calipari recently returned from a recruiting trip and walked into his office at 10:30 p.m. to see the lights on in the Joe Craft Center gym. Expecting to see one of his stars getting in extra work, it was Malone, by himself, putting up shots.

“He wants to get ready for his opportunity,” Calipari said. “Little Brian Long better start doing the same thing. If you want to get out there and do something then you’re going to have to get yourself ready because you’re not getting on that floor much.”

With the exception of road games, where Malone reaps the benefits of a smaller travel party – Ryan Harrow and Twany Beckham cannot travel because they are currently ineligible – Malone almost never gets to practice. Instead, he rides a bike, sometimes 45 minutes at a time, to keep his legs fresh and wait his chance.

Malone has earned the nickname “Lance” (as in Lance Armstrong) from assistant coach Orland Antigua for all his biking.

“Standing on the sidelines is difficult because it just gets boring sometimes,” Malone said. “Sometimes when I know I’m not going to be in for a while I hop on the bike and I’ll stay on there for 45 minutes and time will fly by.”

Malone said he’s noticed all the attention he’s received from fans and said a few of his friends back home have told him he was trending on Twitter.

“I’m sure it will go away if I stop scoring,” Malone said of the attention. “The pressure is on.”

On Friday, Calipari said it was “neat to see” what Malone is doing when he gets the opportunity to play.

“He’s a good kid,” Calipari said.

It turns out he’s a pretty good ballplayer, too.

Cal wants Cats to play more ‘random’

As Coach Cal’s No. 2-ranked team prepares to play Portland on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rupp Arena (televised on FS South and UK IMG), he’s working with the players on being more “random” offensively.

“This is a team that probably needs to play a little more random based on the fact that when you run plays in most cases you are trying to hide a guy or two,” Calipari said. “When you don’t have to hide one player on the court, the more random you can play the better. Secondly, it forces teams to have to use two defenders to stop a player, now you have advantages.”

Calipari said playing more random takes a few strings out of his hands, but so does the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, his coaching trademark.

“When I say random, a lot of it would be Dribble Drive, pick and roll, movement against the zone, attacking from the movement and spacing,” Coach Cal said. “It takes a lot more teaching in practice but it’s something I think this team should be doing more of. Dribble Drive is random. Prior to the Dribble Drive, when I coached I had 10 strings in my hand that I had to hold and after that I had about six. Now I had six strings and a lot of it was in their hands. You’re still coaching them; they understand what they are supposed to do.”

Asked if there was a danger in giving players too much liberty to improvise, Calipari said no.

“If you have all good players who respect each other, which this team is, then you can be more random in how you play because you are going to rely on their decision making and you have to work on it in practice,” Calipari said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s the best way for this team to play and I need to let them go a little bit, which means they are going to turn it over some and make bad decisions. You have to let them go a little bit and then you see what to tighten up a little bit.”