Isaiah Briscoe embracing role as Kentucky Wildcats' leader

In Isaiah Briscoe's mind, he's been a leader since the day he arrived at Kentucky.

He demonstrated it as a freshman with his selfless approach to defense and rebounding while playing a complementary role to high-scoring backcourt mates Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray.

It's a different kind of leadership role, however, that he's embracing as the Wildcats tip off their 2016-17 season on Friday against Stephen F. Austin.

Briscoe is one of the most experienced players on a No. 2 Kentucky squad that features six new players on the roster after yet another elite signing class for John Calipari. He knows all of those fresh faces are looking toward him to set the tone every day in practice.

"As a leader, I know that everything starts with me and that they're looking at me, so I just try to lead by example and be vocal and make sure that everyone's working hard," Briscoe said Thursday in advance of the season opener.

"I've been inspired by being a leader while trying to become a better player."

Briscoe, who tested the NBA Draft waters before returning to UK in the spring, certainly looked to be an improved player during UK's two exhibition games. He played 39 minutes, averaging 11.0 points, 9.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 steals. He shot 7-of-11 from the field, 1-of-2 from behind the arc, and 7-of-10 at the free throw line.

That's coming off a freshman year which suggested shooting accuracy was the only weak link in his game, going 44 percent from the field, 14 percent from the 3-point line and 46 percent at the free throw line. 

"I'm ready for this season," the New Jersey native said. "I can't wait."

The transition to improved player and team leader has also led to a stronger relationship with his coach, according to Briscoe. 

"It wasn't bad last year. Don't get me wrong," he said. "But his point guard was Tyler, and they had a great relationship. I had a good relationship with (Ulis). But this year, I'm a sophomore, I'm the leader of the team, so our relationship had to get better, and it did. I'm more comfortable with coach on the court as opposed to last year. I just feel I'm in a better state of mind."

Calipari initially seemed caught off guard when told of Briscoe's comment. Then it all made sense.

"First year's always hard for these kids because they have their way of doing something, and it got them here, and they think I can be this way and go where I'm trying to go. In most cases, you can't," Calipari said. "This thing is about developing great habits. A lot of times guys will fight you as they try to develop good habits. They want to be sneaky... You can't. These are the habits that you need to have success.

"I look at what (Briscoe) is able to do. One, he's owning his game. Like, he's in that gym and he's working on his shooting. He knows that's what he's got to do. I love the fact that he's competitive in what he does. I was just got a phone call today saying he never guarded until he went to Kentucky. He didn't guard anybody. (The caller said) I watched him. We played against him. So you look at him now, and he's transformed who he is.

The UK boss continued: "When you're first getting started and not hearing what you want to hear, 'I don't like him.' I'm not going to tell you all what you want to hear. But I'm proud of him, and I tell you what, if I'm in a foxhole, that's who I want beside me."

The talent and personalities of the newcomers hasn't hurt, either. McDonald's All-Americans De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk have gelled seamlessly with Briscoe to form what may end up being college basketball's most dangerous backcourt.

"It's fun. I like playing with the both of them, and I'm sure they'll say the same," Briscoe said. "We all complement each other's game, none of us our selfish, things like that. We just look out for one another. I think that we all can do a little bit of everything, and that takes a lot of pressure off one another if you're playing without someone.

"We're starting to get a feel for each other's game, sharing the ball a lot, running out in transition, just trying to fly."

And they learn from each other.

Briscoe said Fox has taught him to run the floor harder. An easy bucket usually awaits on the other end when the speedy point guard's teammates run with him. In turn, Monk -- maybe the most dynamic scorer of the trio -- has embraced on-ball defense from watching Briscoe and Fox hound opposing guards in practice.

"Watching what me and Fox do on the ball in practice, I think that makes him want to do the same thing," Briscoe said. "Sometimes he'll go out there and guard the ball on the point... Since coach starting coaching us, Malik's become a real good defender."

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