Having the opportunity to play professional basketball in Italy was an experience that former Kentucky basketball star Maci Morris knew would be unlike anything she had done before.
It started out that way, too. She was leading her team in scoring, getting to see and do new things and basically just having fun.
Then the coronavirus started spreading throughout Italy.
“I was having a good time. It was nice to go around, explore, see different cities, engage in a different culture. It was just fun playing basketball and having fun again with it,” Morris said. “I loved the city of Florence. It was close to my city and me and my roommate had planned to go to some other places before this stuff all hit.”
Morris played for USE Scotti Empoli — about an hour from Florence — since early October and was leading the team in scoring (15.5 points) and minutes (31.6) per game. She also had made a team-high 44 3-pointers and was hitting almost 41% from the field. Morris was also adding 4.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
She managed to get home to Bell County last week about 24 hours before the travel ban from Europe went into effect. She decided to put herself into a two-week quarantine even though she’s not been sick to make sure there’s no way she might pass the virus to anyone else.
Her mother, Patti, admitted she got nervous the closer it got to time for her daughter to return home.
“I kept waiting for somebody to jerk the rug out from under her,” Patti Morris said. “I try not to worry until stuff happens. I don’t sweat things until they happen but I am glad to get her home.”
Much of Italy has been under a total lockdown to try and control the spread of the virus. Morris said she was not in the “red zone” that had the most restrictions.
“It had been several weeks since we played a game and they had suspended the season until April 3 and we did not know if we would even play then,” Morris said. “Where I was at you could at least walk around but not in a group of people. The grocery stores were open, and some businesses. But everything shut down at 6 (at night).
“All sporting events were cancelled. I was not even allowed in the gym. They locked us out. I could not lift or anything. This is probably the longest break I’ve had from basketball forever and probably will just not do anything until my two-week quarantine is up.”
Morris, a former Kentucky Miss Basketball, is UK’s sixth all-time leading scorer with 1,692 points and her 252 3-pointers are second all-time. Her 41% 3-point career mark is the best at UK.
Morris is ranked No. 6 on UK women’s all-time scoring list with 1,692 points while her 252 career 3s made ranks second all time. She also hit 41.1% of her 3-point tries during her Wildcat career, ranking her at the top of Kentucky’s all-time list in that category.
She had adjustments to make on and off the court in Italy. Some were as simple as no air conditioning and clothes dryer where she lived. Italians also ate dinner nightly at a much later time than Morris was used to and she had some issues with the language.
On the basketball court, games were more sporadic. The team had a 15-day break between games in November and an 11-day break in October. Never did the team play more than two games per week.
Morris said playing in a small town made it easier for fans to interact with her. She would get asked if she played basketball on trips to the grocery store and fans would talk to her about basketball.
“But it was nothing like Kentucky fans,” Morris said.
Morris isn’t sure about her future basketball career. She was an undrafted WNBA free agent who went through training camp with the Washington Mystics last year before getting cut and signing to play in Italy.
“I was playing really well when our season ended,” Morris said. “My body felt really good. I was happy with what I was doing.”
Would she return to Italy again to play?
“Possibly. I don’t know,” Morris said. “It depends on a lot of things. Do I get offered another contract or get a contract offer somewhere else? Do I want to keep playing basketball or not? I am just praying and seeing where God leads me when it is time for me to make a decision about my future.”
CatsIllustrated publisher Justin Rowland says there’s no doubt that two of UK’s biggest in-state 2021 recruiting targets are offensive lineman Jager Burton and receiver Dekel Crowdus, Frederick Douglas High School teammates.
Burton is a top 250 player nationally and the 6-4, 270-pound lineman has offers from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, West Virginia and others.
“I really think he could be a future NFL player,” Rowland said. “I think Kentucky has a good shot. I have heard he really likes UK. He is a very savvy kid. Some guys do not have a plan and are not organized then you have guys like him who are very calculated. He knows the impact of his words and where he might end up.”
Crowds left Lexington last year to play his junior season at IMG Academy in Florida but is now back.
“He competed against some of the best defensive backs and receivers daily in practice,” Rowland said. “He has been timed sub 4.4 (seconds) in the 40 (yard dash). He has great speed.
“He has to improve his production and route running. He’s probably still a bit raw but he has speed you cannot team and that’s something most staffs have no trouble gambling on.”
He has cut his list of schools to 10: Baylor, Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Texas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
Burton even suggested on Twitter that they could be a “package deal.”
Malaki Branham is a 6-foot-5 small forward from St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio), who is one of the top 25 players in the 2021 recruiting class.
He has scholarship offers from Alabama, Iowa, Louisville, Kansas State, Missouri, Ohio State, Purdue, Cincinnati, Marquette, Xavier, Akron and Ohio. He’s also been hearing from Michigan and others.
His cousin also happens to be Kentucky freshman receiver Kalil Branham.
“He’s the No. 1 recruit in Ohio,” the UK receiver said.
What about his cousin playing for John Calipari’s Wildcats?
“He wants, too,” Kalil Branham said.
Two years after being forced out at Louisville, Rick Pitino is back coaching college basketball at Iona following the resignation of coach Tim Clues for health reasons.
“Rick is a Hall of Fame coach who has won at the highest levels and he is committed to leading our student-athletes and our program to national prominence. He brings passion and energy and shares our desire to build a winning program that will make our community proud,” Iona athletics director Matthew Glovaski said.
Pitino has a 647-271 record as a college head coach and won the national title at Kentucky in 1996 where he coached eight years and he later won a national title at Louisville where he coached 16 years that the Cardinals were later forced to vacate due to NCAA violations that led to Pitino’s dismissal.
Pitino, 67, has been coaching in Greece for Panathinaikos. His team won the Greek Cup and Greek League last year.
Pitino was also apparently the top candidate at Grand Canyon before accepted the Iona job last week. Seamus Carey is the president at Iona, a job he held at Transylvania College as well. Carey was at Transy when Pitino coached at Kentucky.
Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy calls it a “great” hire for Iona and a chance for Pitino to put what happened at Louisville behind him.
“It got one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. I don’t see any reason why it would be bad for college basketball,” DeCourcy said. “What happened at Louisville was on his watch, and one could say he should have been more vigilant, but I’ve always believed him when he said he wasn’t aware of what was going on at the athletic dorm.”
Veteran ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale predicts Pitino will make Iona a “mid major power” in three years.
“His desire to get back in college is off the charts,” Vitale. “I would not bet against him making them into what Gonzaga and Dayton had been.”
Former WLEX-TV sports anchor Alan Cutler knew Pitino before he ever came to Kentucky.
“This won’t be popular and I could care less but I’m glad to see Pitino get the Iona job. If you don’t know him, he’s already paid a big price for his dumb mistakes,” Cutler said.
Kentucky fan Bruce Richardson of Lexington says he hopes Pitino wins big for how he revived the UK program after it went on probation under former coach Eddie Sutton.
“Rick’s been through hell and brought some of it on himself but he rescued UK when it was desperate. He gave UK instant national credibility, when only three days earlier SI (Sports Illustrated) had its ‘Kentucky’s Shame’ cover. He put UK on the sports page for success, not scandal,” Richardson said.
“Few other coaches, and none that would have come to UK at that time, could have have had such an instant restorative impact on the UK basketball program. Pitino was riding high as the head coach of the Knicks. If he wanted to change jobs there were plenty (college and pro) that he could have had that didn’t have two years of serious sanctions.
“I have always been a Rick Pitino fan. I just hated that he coached Louisville.”
Vince Marrow didn’t want to “toot my own horn” but says that LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph reminds him a lot of himself in some ways.
“I am not going to toot my own horn too much but I remember when I was at Toledo (playing tight end) and nobody knew about me (as a player),” Marrow, a 1992 draft pick by the Buffalo Bills who also played for Kansas City and Carolina, said.
“Just watching this kid, he has all the tools. He has size, can run, plays physical. He played as a true freshman at LSU. Just watching him last season in drills and on scout team, he has a chance to be as good as any cornerback we have ever had. He can play.”
Marrow believes having Joseph eligible after a redshirt season and the return of safety Davonte Robinson after he missed last season with an injury will bolster an already strong secondary.
“It’s really going to be interesting to see all that talent on the field together next year. We are going to be three deep at certain positions with guys that can all really play,” Marrow said.
Quote of the Week: “There’s no list for any of this. I have an undergraduate degree, a Masters degree from Syracuse. This was never in one of my Masters classes. We have a few law degrees in their offices. I checked with each of them. No, they never had this one in our law school classes. So that’s reality,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey after cancelling the SEC Tournament last week.
Quote of the Week 2: “I know we lost Lynn Bowden but I still think we are going to be good at that position. I think Josh Ali will be a star. He’s our best route runner and is really fast,” Kentucky tight end coach Vince Marrow on UK’s receivers for next season.
Quote of the Week 3: “Kenny makes it about the kids. He shuns the spotlight, and yet isn’t it funny how those kinds of people — the ones who care only about their work — are the ones we honor at the end of the day,” Kentucky coach John Calipari on assistant Kenny Payne being selected for A STEP UP Hall of Fame honoring assistant coaches.