NCAA Tournament: Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander worked to become a star, and he’s made Wildcats a contender

BOISE, Idaho — This time of year, you hear a lot of “this is why I came to Kentucky,” and it’s almost always about playing in big NCAA Tournament games. It’s rarely about rising with the sun four days a week to meet an assistant coach in the practice gym and go through a rigorous, voluntary workout before school.

Of course, if Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is honest, sometimes he hits the snooze button a few times, springs up out of bed at 6:55 for the 7 a.m. session, and proceeds to “race across the street,” where Joel Justus is always waiting with a cup of Starbucks and a list of problem areas they’re going to drill for the next hour.

“In recruiting, that’s something we sell,” Justus said. Coach John Calipari “sets the blueprint, and part of that is: As a staff, we’re going to be here for you, whether it’s off the court, whether it’s in the film room. And [Gilgeous-Alexander] has taken full advantage of that.”

Like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Breakfast Club during the 2012 national championship season, Gilgeous-Alexander’s early — and for a long time solo — workouts have become a major thread in the still-unfinished story of the 2018 Wildcats.

Their rise, from losing four straight in February to winning 8 of 9 to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night against Buffalo, coincides with a handful of teammates finally following the freshman point guard’s lead and putting in the kind of extra work it takes to go from good to great. Gilgeous-Alexander had quietly been doing that for weeks.

“He wanted to do it. This was all him,” Justus said. “And he does stuff without coaches. He does stuff with managers late at night. He works at all times of the day. He’s just a guy that gets after it.”

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The proof is in his production: Gilgeous-Alexander has, in a blink, gone from the seventh-highest-rated recruit in UK’s 2017 signing class to starting point guard to second-team All-SEC to SEC Tournament MVP to, now, a projected NBA lottery pick.

In four postseason games — the league tournament and a first-round NCAA win over Davidson on Thursday — Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 20.5 points, 6.8 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals and just 1.8 turnovers.

“It’s changed who he is and his opportunities,” Calipari said of the extra work. It’s like SGA discovered a secret solution to the problem of playing high-level basketball as a teenager. “How do you get yourselves to do things that you really don’t want to do? How do you self-evaluate? Because people around you are going to tell you that you are never wrong — it’s always somebody else.

“You can buy into all that and never change or you can self-evaluate and say, ‘I don’t like where I am,’ which then says to you, ‘Now how do I change?’”

Where Gilgeous-Alexander differs from so many entitled, enabled young stars in college basketball, though, is that he doesn’t have a family pumping him full of false bravado and second-guessing the head coach’s use of his extraordinary ability. No, instead he has an ultra-competitive, super-critical mom who ran track at Alabama and for her native Canada in the 1992 Summer Olympics.

“That edge?” Justus said. “I think he gets it from his mother.”

She has a unique parenting strategy: In an attempt to motivate her son to keep striving, she sends him text messages about how bad he is at playing basketball.

Why’d you miss that layup? Why’d you turn over that ball?

“She’s always on me,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. The worst of it is, “uh, stuff I can’t say in the public. She’s a little brutal. After that, she’ll always tell me she loves me no matter what — but that’s the closest I’ll get to a compliment. Both my parents are workers and that’s one thing they’ve instilled in me at a young age, that you have to work for what you want. I just love working.”

So when that alarm goes off, always much earlier than he’d like, Gilgeous-Alexander escapes the pull of warm blankets and meets Justus for an hour of skill work — lately, it’s a lot of shooting off the dribble and speeding up his release — then a quick shower, a 9 a.m. tutor and classes at 10 and 11.

“Joel has always pushed me really hard, and he’s pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “The whole coaching staff is like that. They’re willing to work whenever we are. But I knew that coming to this school, that the coaches were going to be for us. That’s why I came here.”

Well, that and this little NCAA Tournament that Kentucky is trying to win for the ninth time.

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