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Freshman Bryce Hopkins brings “Chicago toughness” to the fight for playing time

“Nothing was really handed to me growing up, so I just have that mentality to come in here and get better, day in and day out.”

Bryce Hopkins. TyTy Washington. Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

With a team loaded with depth and 5-star talent, freshman Bryce Hopkins has embraced the daily battle of auditioning for playing time in front of UK Coach John Calipari.

In fact, Hopkins almost seems unfazed by the fact that he’s missed practice time due to an injury (strained back), is learning a new system, and is still adapting to the speed of the college game, all while trying to crack into this year’s starting lineup.

Calipari, now in his 13th season, already has Wildcat fans buzzing about Hopkins’ potential, saying “He’s better than I thought” in early September before adding that “He was the biggest surprise” of the preseason during Kentucky’s recent Pro Day at Rupp Arena.

The Hall of Fame coach provided an update on Hopkins during Wednesday’s annual media day at Memorial Coliseum.

“He didn’t practice for 7 to 10 days, and he moved back,” said Calipari when talking about Hopkins. “Well, he’s back practicing, and he’s kind of nudging his way up (into the rotation). Very physical, starting to try to rebound more. You can play him as a four, you can play him as a three, he’s probably not big enough to play as a 5...there’s all kinds of moving parts right now.”

UK Associate Coach Orlando Antigua has also been high on the 6-foot-6 combo forward and recently said Hopkins has a chance to be “really, really good” during a segment on Sunday Morning Sports Talk on WLAP Sports.

Hopkins, last year’s MaxPreps Illinois Player of the Year, was ranked No. 33 overall by ESPN and picked Kentucky after decommitting from Louisville. The Fenwick High School product averaged 24.4 points and 12.5 rebounds as a senior and hopes to follow the path of Windy City legends such as Anthony Davis, Antoine Walker and Tyler Ulis, three of Kentucky’s all-time greats.

“I feel like we just have a chip on our shoulder coming from Chicago,” said Hopkins of why Chicago players have been successful in Lexington. “Nothing was really handed to me growing up, so I just have that mentality to come in here and get better, day in and day out.”

The pipeline from Chicago to Lexington has been front a center in each of Kentucky’s last three national titles with Davis (2012), Nazr Mohammed (1998) and Walker (1996) all playing key roles on the national stage.

Ulis, who was named SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore, helped the Wildcats to a perfect 31-0 regular season during the 2014-15 season.

Kentucky assistant coach Ronald “Chin” Coleman, also a Chicago native, said he was “heartbroken” to miss out on Hopkins when he and Antigua were assistants at Illinois last season but is excited to see the Oak Park, Illinois native as the next man up from Chicago.

“I think a lot of it has to come from what we call the Chicago toughness,” said Coleman on why so many UK greats have come from Chicago. “It’s just the way the game is played in Chicago, how you have to survive in terms of being tough, being tough physically and mentally. It’s how the game is played. It’s how you have to survive (because) there’s no other way.”

Hopkins will have to fight and claw for everything he gets at Kentucky as Calipari says “we’ve not had a bad practice yet” and depth not seen since the 2014-15 team used the Platoon system to finish 38-1 with a roster that included two-time NBA All-Star Devin Booker who never started a game at Kentucky.

“If I have to play 10, 11, 12 - I would,” said Calipari. “It’s not what I’d like to do, but it’s not about me, it’s (about) them. I’ve played 10 before, I’d rather not. I’ve played 5 before and 6, probably not enough, but I would do it if people separate as we go forward. Right now, if you walked into practice and were watching, you would say: “They are really competing.”

Kentucky, ranked 10th in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll, was picked by the media on Tuesday to win its 50th SEC title with Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn rounding out the top five. The Wildcats will give fans a preview on Friday night with the annual Blue-White game that will be aired on the SEC Network at 7:00 pm ET.

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