With as many athletes as there are around the country and basketball rosters capped at 13 scholarship players, it’s inevitable that every team and every coach has a few in-state stars who get away.
Most of the time, the notion of playing against the home-state team is downplayed by everybody involved and the team, player and coach simply go about their business.
Every once in a while, there’s a little more underlying drama involved, especially the first time the player goes head-to-head with the home-state team that passed him over.
Hickey grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky., just over a 200-mile drive from Lexington. As a senior at Christian County High, Hickey was named the state’s Mr. Basketball after guiding his team to a Class 5A state championship, arguably one of the most prestigious honors in the country for a high school basketball player considering the fervor for prep hoops in the Blue Grass State.
Yet Hickey, who was also a football star, never heard from UK coach John Calipari during the recruiting process. Instead, the primary suitors for the 5-foot-11 playmaker were mid-majors Western Kentucky, Dayton and Butler. SEC teams South Carolina and Tennessee also flirted with him and LSU came in late.
If the Kentucky snub bothers Hickey, he hides it well.
“I was always told people who win Mr. Basketball go there, but I never got recruited,” Hickey said nonchalantly. “Kentucky has always been my dream school but things happen for a reason.”
The always quotable Calipari expects Hickey to feed off the idea that he and his staff could’ve – and probably should’ve recruited – him.
The Wildcats coach insists that the reason Hickey wasn’t on the their list was because he already a commitment from Marquis Teague, a higher-profile point man from Indianapolis.
“It’s not about that, he’s good enough, there is no question, but we took Marquis Teague. When you do that, unless you just want to load up on kids, here’s what happens, what if he comes here, maybe he is better than Marquis, maybe he’s not, and if he’s not and he’s not playing, is that fair to him? Maybe he would be good enough to beat out Marquis Teague, is that fair to Marquis Teague?”
Comparing Hickey and Teague shows they have had very similar impacts for the teams in their respective debut campaigns.
Both average 10 points a game and lead their teams in assists. Hickey is more of a 3-point threat and leads the SEC in steals with 46. He also has fewer turnovers and is a more productive rebounder from the backcourt.
“Hickey is really good,” Calipari said. “He’s not afraid, he could play here, there isn’t any question. He’s not afraid. He’s a battler. He’s good.”
And from all indications, Hickey is focused as well.
He said his emphasis on Saturday’s game is to play his game and not try to outplay Teague or carry more of the workload than normal. Hickey also said the excitement for him is playing the top-ranked team, Kentucky or not.
“I’m just going to let the game come to me, not going to rush and just play basketball – have fun,” he said.
“The No. 1 team is coming in here and we have to be excited about that and play the best game we can.”
LSU coach Trent Johnson said he won’t make a conscious effort to keep Hickey’s attention on the task at hand, in part because he wants emotions to play a part in how Hickey approaches UK.
“What makes him good is he is emotional, he cares and he has courage,” Johnson said. “I would rather try to slow him down during the game than slow him down before the game, if that makes sense. This is an emotional game .”
“He grew up there (in Kentucky), and he knows what that is about. But he also knows that if he’s not on an even keel and not making good decisions, things aren't going to happen for us and for him.”