Kentucky head coach John Calipari hugs Wildcats forward Daimion Collins late in Saturday’s game against Florida. Silas Walker [email protected]

He played all five minutes and five seconds in Kentucky’s 72-67 victory over Florida on Saturday night, but Daimion Collins made a big impression in the relatively short time he spent on the basketball court.

So much so that John Calipari foreshadowed a lineup change in the Wildcats’ future.

“I need to play against him more,” said the British coach of Collins. “Should play Oscar less.”

Oscar, of course, is Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning college basketball national player of the year and Kentucky’s leading scorer and rebounder for the second straight season. Tshiebwe grabbed 15 rebounds on Saturday night, but he went just 2-for-14 from the floor to finish with four points before fouling with 1:38 left in a close game against the Gators.

Collins came in, and – 47 seconds later – he was at the free throw line. The Cats clung on to a 68-64 lead. Florida fights back at every opportunity. And it was a one-on-one bonus situation. Miss the first, you won’t get a second. Collins made the first free throw. Then he made the second. Then Calipari took him out of the game.

And the Kentucky coach couldn’t restrain himself long enough to get the six-foot-tall sophomore off the floor. As Collins made his way to the British bench, Calipari left the touchline, stepped onto the pitch and wrapped both arms around his player in a full embrace.

In a season that was supposed to take Collins’ fledgling basketball career to new heights, he experienced the lowest of lows six days before the Kentucky opener. Just four days after his 20th birthday — and just hours after taking pictures with his dad at the gym — Daimion Collins learned that his father, Ben Collins, had passed away. He was 43 years old.

Basketball took a backseat as Collins spent the next several weeks traveling to and from his home state of Texas, spending time with his family, grieving with his loved ones and figuring out how to move forward in a time of such personal tragedy.

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“His father was his best friend,” Calipari said last week. ‘Would have been best man at his wedding. And he, in Lexington, died.”

Preseason hype had pinned Collins as Kentucky’s breakaway player for the 2022-23 season, an athletically gifted forward with a huge advantage. A possible NBA Draft pick after year two at Lexington. Understandably, that kind of season didn’t materialize. Collins’ six points and seven rebounds against South Carolina State on November 17 remain his season highs in both categories. He has played little, often not at all, in some of the UK’s biggest games.

Calipari said last week that Collins – already thin for his height – lost 16 pounds after his father’s death. Those expectations of a huge step up on the field – bolstered by his dazzling play at the team’s summer games in the Bahamas and his standout performance at UK Pro Day in October – were put on the backburner.

Collins spoke publicly about his father’s death for the first time four weeks ago, focusing his comments mainly on basketball and how he found the court as a haven for his personal loss.

“I know I’m probably not quite back to where I want to be at this point,” he said of his mental state at the time, just two months after his father’s death. “But I will definitely get there. I am getting better day by day.”

The following night – with power forward Jacob Toppin sidelined due to injury – Collins started for the only time this season, playing a season-high 21 minutes against South Carolina.

UK lost – the low point in a rollercoaster 2022-23 campaign – but Collins blocked three shots and grabbed four rebounds. Early in that game, however, he suffered a left foot injury. He played through it that night, but did not play again for three weeks. Until last Tuesday night against Mississippi. In less than two minutes on the court at Oxford, he scored four points, including one of his usual highlight dunks.

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“I love to see him smile,” Calipari said afterwards. “Like, do you understand what he went through?”

Tshiebwe later said that the UK coach wanted to replace him for Collins earlier in that game, but the Wildcats star waved him off.

“I’m so happy for Daimion,” he said.

Kentucky forward Daimion Collins celebrates his teammates’ scoring while sitting on the bench against the Florida Gators on Saturday. Silas Walker [email protected]

Tshiebwe has spoken in the past about his own father’s death back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was just 12 years old. He said he hugged Collins every time he saw him.

“Because I can see — I can look at his face, and I can see how much pain he’s in, but not showing,” Tshiebwe said. “Because I went through that. …

“I lost my father, and that thing affected my mind for a few years. It took so many years for me to be back to normal. For him, I just pray for him, because I can see him now – he’s starting to learn how to let it go, to let time pass. It will take a while for him to heal, but I just need people to keep praying for him. He’ll be good. He is a boy who likes basketball. He works on it all the time. He competes.”

Less than a minute after Collins first took the field on Saturday night, he managed to steal a tip right in front of Calipari, collect the ball and zoom to the other side.

“I thought: ‘Dunk it’,” said teammate Cason Wallace afterwards. “All the time. From the moment he tipped it over to the moment he got to the edge.

Collins left the field quite a distance from the basket—even ahead of him—and took the right to Florida’s Colin Castleton, one of the best shot blockers in the country. He pulled the error.

Back on the other side of the field, Calipari pumped both fists in the air several times. Everyone on that sideline – probably almost everyone in that arena – knows what Collins has endured for the past three months.

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“That’s the brotherhood here, and the family,” said chief guard CJ Fredrick. “Just seeing him there, watching him play, watching him smile, having fun – that means a lot to us. He’s been through so much. … He was amazing for us tonight. And he really, really stepped up.

Wallace was the star of the game: 20 points and some big shots on the stretch. Wallace is also Collins’ cousin, and he traveled with Calipari and a few other British basketball staffers to attend Ben Collins’ funeral in Texas in November. Daimion returned with them on the flight back to Lexington.

Wallace was proud of his cousin’s performance Saturday night.

“Knowing he comes in affects the game. It shows he should be playing,” he said. “…I’m sure he knows I’m here for him. And if he ever needs anything, I’ve got it.”

Calipari said after the match that he had played Tshiebwe too many minutes, suggesting it hampered his on-field performance. His solution on the spot was simple.

“That means Daimion can play more,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether that will happen. Calipari’s public comments about schedule management don’t always match reality. What is not in question is the support Collins has from his basketball family in Kentucky.

“I’m very proud of him,” Toppin said. “He’s been through a lot. And to go through all that and keep a smile on your face, it’s amazing. He’s a good soul. I’m just proud of him. This team is proud of him.”

Ben Roberts is the University of Kentucky men’s basketball beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has previously specialized in recruiting basketball in the UK and has created and maintained the Next Cats blog. A native of Franklin County, he first joined the Herald-Leader in 2006. Support my work with a digital subscription

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