Providence’s Bryce Hopkins is a nightmare waiting to happen for Big Blue Nation

It’s the worst-case scenario. For the second straight year, Kentucky suffers a first-round knockout in the NCAA Tournament. Last year, Saint Peter’s. This year, Bryce Hopkins.

You remember Hopkins, the 6-foot-7 sophomore forward from Oak Park, Illinois, considered one of John Calipari’s top recruits a year ago. For whatever reason, Hopkins never made his way into Calipari’s rotation. By season’s end, Hopkins had placed his name in the transfer portal.

He ended up at Providence, who coincidentally is Kentucky’s opening Big Dance opponent at 7:10 p.m. Friday in Greensboro, N.C. Not so coincidentally, Hopkins averaged 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds for the 21-11 Friars. He’s one of five finalists for the Karl Malone Award for the nation’s best power forward.

“If UK loses to Providence with Hopkins having a monster game,” a reader emailed me Monday, “it will only add more fuel to the rising level of discontent in the fan base. That would make for a lousy spring this year.”

It could happen, too. Teams that know how to put the ball in the basket have tied Kentucky in knots all season. UK is 1-7 against the top 29 teams in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. Providence is ranked 16th.

Hopkins is a reason why. A first-team All-Big East selection, Hopkins leads the Friars in scoring. He has produced 10 double-doubles. He’s shooting 37.8 percent from three-point range and 76.3 percent of his free throws. He leads the Big East in free throws made.

On Dec. 20, Hopkins scored 29 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in Providence’s 103-98 double overtime win over eventual Big East champion Marquette.

So why did Hopkins leave UK? Playing time. As a freshman, Hopkins averaged just 6.4 minutes in his 28 games last season. Injuries had something to do with that, but not all.

On Feb. 23 a year ago, Hopkins scored 13 points in 16 minutes as UK defeated LSU 71-66. After that, he played seven combined minutes in the Wildcats’ next three games. He didn’t leave the bench in the SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee or the NCAA loss to Saint Peter’s.

“I feel like last year when I got out there, I was under a microscope,” Hopkins told Brian Hamilton of The Athletic. “(Calipari) only wanted me to do certain things, and it was like I was playing like a robot.”

Early in Calipari’s Kentucky tenure, I was surprised there weren’t more players transferring out of the program. There was so much talent, but only one basketball. By Cal’s third year, a few trickled to the exit ramp. Kyle Wiltjer left for Gonzaga. Marcus Lee departed for California. Charles Matthews ended up at Michigan.

Providence forward Bryce Hopkins (23) shoots the ball against Connecticut forward Alex Karaban (11) during a game in Storrs, Conn., on Feb 22. Gregory Fisher USA TODAY Sports

Then after the 2019-20 season, Johnny Juzang returned home to play for UCLA. After averaging 2.9 points per game as a freshman at UK, Juzang helped the Bruins to the 2021 Final Four, averaging 16.0 points per game. He scored 28 points in UCLA’s 51-49 win over Michigan in the East Region finals, then 29 points in the 93-90 overtime loss to Gonzaga in the Final Four. He’s now with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

Hopkins could follow a similar path. Preseason reviews from UK’s workouts last season pegged Hopkins as one of the best talents, if not the best, on the team. That was before he got lost in the shuffle and ended up as a Friar playing for Ed Cooley.

“He’s gotten better,” Calipari said on his radio show Monday night. “They’re doing good stuff with him.”

When Providence’s name popped up opposite Kentucky on CBS’ selection show on Sunday night, Hopkins’ former teammates gave a “we-knew-it” laugh. “B-Hop,” yelled more than one current Cat.

“We’re really looking forward to competing against Bryce and seeing him,” UK’s CJ Fredrick said after the show. “He was one of our teammates. And, you know, we love him.”

Kentucky fans, not so much. The thought of another first-round NCAA loss, and to a former barely used player who has found fame and fortune elsewhere, is not an appealing one for Big Blue Nation.

In fact, it would make for a pretty lousy spring.

This story was originally published March 14, 2023, 11:02 AM.

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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