From Bucknell to Kentucky

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College basketball fans are well aware of the great tradition of Kentucky college basketball.  One rarely ever mentions the Patriot League in the same breath with teams like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and others, including Kentucky.

On Sunday, I did the play-by-play of the LafayetteBucknell game and one of the players missing this year from the Bucknell roster was Nate Sestina.  He graduated last year, but due to an injury in his freshman season when he did not play, he still had one year of eligibility left. Most Patriot League schools do not offer many opportunities for post-graduate work so some players will find a program that allows them to continue their schooling and play one more year of college basketball.  This is not all that uncommon.  What is uncommon is to transfer from the Patriot League to a Top Ten basketball school.  What is even more unusual is that the player will actually play.

John Hale of the Louisville Courier Journal can tell the Nate Sestina story much better than I can:

The story behind Nate Sestina’s journey from Emporium to Kentucky 

LEXINGTON, Ky. – When Nate Sestina takes the Rupp Arena court for the first time at Big Blue Madness in October, the entire population of his hometown could fit in the stands.

More than 10 times.

That moment will mark the culmination of one of the more unusual journeys to the Kentucky basketball roster in recent memory. Sestina was not a high-profile recruit like Anthony Davis. He is not a Bluegrass State native like Dontaie Allen. He did not play at another high-profile university like Reid Travis.

Sestina’s alma mater, Cameron County High School in Emporium, Pennsylvania — student body less than 250 — had not produced a Division I player since the 1970s, but Sestina ended that drought with a scholarship from Bucknell. Three years later, without a single college start on his resume, few would have imagined Sestina attracting the interest of college basketball’s winningest program less than a year later.

“It’s crazy,” Sestina told the Courier Journal when reached by phone Sunday. “I’m waiting to kind of wake up from everything. It really is surreal, and it’s super humbling to have this opportunity. Coming from where I come from, this doesn’t ever really happen.”

Former Cameron County coach Jon Songer remembers Sestina as a talented high school freshman without a clear spot on a veteran squad. Sestina had yet to grow into the 6-foot-9, 245-pound frame that helped him rank second in the Patriot League in rebounds per game (8.5) last season, and the only open spot in the Cameron County starting lineup was at point guard.

So Sestina spent his freshman year as the team’s primary ball-handler, playing alongside older brother Andrew, then a senior who went on to play for Division III Allegheny College.

“He was just a baby-faced kid, about 6-2, 6-3,” Songer said. “… We wanted to get our five best guys on the floor, and even though maybe that wasn’t Nate’s true position at point guard, that was the void we needed to fill. He came in and played hard that summer going into his freshman year of high school, worked on his handle, worked on his ball skills and things like that. He did well for us. … He handled the pressure well.”

Having his brother to motivate him every day in practice made sure Sestina never lost sight of the ultimate goal. As Andrew was recruited by colleges, Nate became certain he wanted to play basketball at the next level too.

“He really helped me and every day in practice was competitive,” Sestina said. “He beat me up. I drove in for a layup, he’d borderline tackle me to the ground and be like, ‘Hey, finish through contact.’”

As Sestina grew, so did Cameron County’s success.

Sestina won 12 games as a freshman, 18 as a sophomore, 20 as a junior and 24 as a senior. In his last season at Cameron County, Sestina averaged 22 points and 14 rebounds per game to lead his team to its first state tournament victory since 1972.

His college career could have been derailed just four games into his freshman year at Bucknell when a torn labrum ended his season, but Sestina took the opportunity to refine his shooting mechanics. He returned to the court as a sophomore to serve a key reserve role on NCAA Tournament teams in 2017 and 2018, then stepped into the starting lineup last fall following the departures of former Patriot League Players of the Year Nana Foulland and Zach Thomas from the Bucknell frontcourt.

Sestina went on to earn second-team All-Patriot League honors after averaging 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He shot 53.6 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3-point range (41 for 108) and 80.8 percent from the free-throw line.

The Patriot League does not allow athletically motivated redshirt seasons, and while Sestina’s injury as a freshman likely would have qualified him for a waiver to that rule, there was no fit for him in the Bucknell graduate school, which admits only around 40 students per year. With the blessings of his Bucknell coaches, Sestina decided to pursue a graduate transfer.

“If I were to go pro, I would have some things I struggled with like moving my feet laterally, guarding people smaller than me,” Sestina said. “I just feel like there’s an overall confidence in my game I know I need going into a pro career. I talked with a couple of my coaches and my family, and I think taking an extra year and going after a graduate year and playing at a bigger school and having that opportunity to develop would really benefit me.”

The decision was perfect timing for Kentucky.

John Calipari had recently overcome his distaste for the graduate transfer rule after watching Travis and the Wildcats thrive together in one season. There was an obvious need for frontcourt options on the roster with Travis gone, PJ Washington all but certain to enter the NBA draft and no post players committed in the 2019 recruiting class.

Luckily for Sestina, he had no shortage of connections to the Kentucky coach.

After coaching a team of college players, including Brad Calipari, on an international trip last summer, Bucknell assistant Joe Meehan had developed a relationship with the Hall of Fame coach. Two of Sestina’s former AAU coaches (Daryn Freedman and Almamy Thiero) had played for Calipari at Massachusetts and Memphis, respectively.

All three coaches reached out to the Kentucky staff to clue them into Sestina’s availability.

“I’m super thankful for those guys for taking a leap of faith and reaching out,” Sestina said. “I’m pretty sure college coaches get it all the time — ‘We’ve got this guy, we’ve got this guy’ — but Coach Cal said when he saw Coach Meehan, Coach Al and Coach Freedman all reached out he was like, ‘I’m going to take a look at this kid.’ The next day he called me and said, ‘I heard from three different people and took a look for myself and I like the way you play; I like how hard you play; I like the veteran presence you have and the leadership you bring.’”

Freedman, president of the Basketball Stars of America AAU program, played for Calipari on the 1996 UMass Final Four team then worked on Calipari staffs with UMass, Memphis and the New Jersey Nets.

When Sestina’s father, Donald, told him Nate was about to enter the transfer portal, his first call was to Kentucky assistant Tony Barbee, his former colleague and fellow UMass alum.

“It’s basically like if you want to be a doctor and you go to Harvard Medical School,” Freedman said. “I consider my time under Coach Cal like that. … Coach Cal is the best at getting guys prepared for the next level. If he’s got the potential to do it, Coach will get that out of him.”

Despite receiving interest from close to 20 programs, Sestina held off seriously considering other options until he could complete a visit to Kentucky.

Both sides were impressed by the other, and on Thursday Sestina announced he would play his final season of college basketball in Lexington.

“Good things happen to good people, and you’re not going to find a better person than Nate,” Songer said. “I think he’s going to be tremendous not only to the Kentucky basketball but around the community. I think people are going to just love him. He’s got that personality that just attracts everybody.”

The message from Calipari was clear and one that will surprise few Kentucky fans: Nothing would be guaranteed to Sestina at UK, but Calipari was not interested in adding a graduate transfer just to sit on the bench and add depth in case one of his five-star recruits did not pan out. A conversation with Travis about his experience at Kentucky reinforced to Sestina that the challenge of helping lead young, talented squad was one he wanted to embrace.

He was ready to embark on the most unlikely chapter of his journey from Emporium to basketball stardom yet.

“I’m a big believer in God, I’m a big believer in things happen for a reason,” Sestina said. “I got hurt my freshman year, and if I hadn’t gotten hurt, none of this stuff would have happened. … If you go to a school like this you’re able to go for a national championship. … The guys they’re bringing in are super confident and super driven. I think by coming in and clicking right away we can make a run at it.”

To bring you up to date – Sestina has played in 10 of the 13 Kentucky games (he was injured for three of them).  He has started six and is currently a starter.  He is Kentucky’s leading rebounder and sixth on the team in scoring.  He led the team in scoring against Ohio State with 17 points making five 3’s.

What is typical for a Patriot League basketball player is that they are great scholar-athletes.  Perhaps, the best part of the story is that Nate Sestina is majoring in Kinesiology and Health Promotion.  I looked it up – it’s “the study of the mechanics of body movements”.  That, also, seems to summarize Sestina’s life.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. Despite what everyone seemed to be saying after the VikingsSaints game ended with a Vikings touchdown in overtime, did you not think there was offensive pass interference? Tight end Kyle Rudolph created space by pushing off of the defender.  That space allowed the catch.  The Saints were bitten again by a “no pass interference” call, this time an offensive one.  Last year a “no-call” on the defensive side may have cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.  Replay on pass interference has not helped very much.
  1. Dallas fired Jason Garrett on Sunday. His contract would have expired anyway on the 14th.  It will be interesting to see where Garrett ends up.  He has always been a favorite of the Giants and they need a head coach.  So does Dallas.  There are plenty of good candidates – Mike McCarthy and Jeff Fisher to name a couple.  Fisher’s personality might be a welcome change to the stoic Garrett.
  1. Why do so many fans hate Tom Brady? I was in a gym full of people on Sunday and everyone seemed so elated that Brady finally lost a playoff game and they were ecstatic he threw an interception for his last pass, perhaps as a Patriot.  He is a free-agent now.  Would the haters want him on THEIR team?
  1. If anyone ever doubted that great dual meets in high school wrestling generate the biggest crowds and the greatest interest, then you did not see the Notre DameBethlehem Catholic match this past week? The crowd was immense and the atmosphere was the best.  I cannot imagine squeezing a crowd like that into the Notre Dame gym next year.  It was like the old days.
  1. RCN-TV will bring you Parkland at Freedom basketball on Tuesday and Northampton at Easton on Friday night. Both are LIVE at 7:00pm.  Our Lafayette schedule includes the Lafayette men taking on Holy Cross on Wednesday at 7:00pm and the Lafayette women playing Loyola on Saturday at 2:00pm.  Easton will wrestle Northampton on Saturday.  Plenty to choose from if you are so inclined.

 

GARY’S GUESSES (LAST WEEK – 2-2)  (YEAR-TO-DATE) – 169-89-1  (66%)

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Gary Laubach About Gary Laubach

Gary began his broadcasting career with Twin County in 1972. Twin County eventually became C-TEC and then RCN. Gary holds the dual role of Director of Media Services and Sports Director/Broadcaster. He currently broadcasts about 140 sports and entertainment broadcasts a year, and oversees the scheduling of all sporting events for RCN.

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