How one of the worst seasons in Kentucky basketball history saved Davion Mintz's life

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – The final chapter in Kentucky basketball’s worst season since the Great Depression was still unfinished, but even the most die hard of fans had long since stopped dreaming of an improbable run to an NCAA Tournament bid.

So, when Davion Mintz took to Twitter shortly after a Feb. 27 loss to Florida, before which he had participated in Senior Day festivities despite not yet deciding whether he would use the extra year of eligibility granted all players during the COVID-19 pandemic, he knew he had to send a message in case he was entering his final weeks as a Wildcat.

“Regardless of the outcome I cannot thank Big Blue Nation enough for the support and love I felt tonight and all season,” the former Creighton transfer tweeted. “Kentucky saved my life, helping me grow as a person and player, but most importantly letting me be the real me.”

Three games and two losses later, Mintz’s first season at Kentucky would end with an anticlimactic 74-73 loss to Mississippi State in the team’s opening game at the SEC Tournament. Two months later, Mintz would officially place his name in the NBA draft pool while leaving the door open to a possible return to UK.

While Mintz was testing the draft waters, searching to find a team that might consider drafting him in the second round, Kentucky coach John Calipari was busy remaking the Wildcat roster and coaching staff to ensure there would be no repeat of the 9-16 season.

But the Hall of Fame coach made it clear a spot was left for Mintz if he wanted to return to school.

On July 1, Mintz removed his name from the draft pool. Now almost seven months after his thank you tweet to the Big Blue Nation, Mintz is more confident than ever that despite the losing record and COVID-19 restrictions, his first season as a Wildcat forever changed him.

“Just being at Creighton, it was a great experience for me, but it was nothing like what I’m going through now,” Mintz said in a one-on-one interview with the Courier Journal. “Just being embraced and being somewhere that fits my identity, Kentucky was just a perfect match for me. Being able to be challenged and grow into the person I want to be, especially on the court but more importantly off the court learning how to deal with things and mature. If feel like my year at Kentucky, it fit for literally four years of college.

“I felt like I matured more in this one year last year than I did for four years. Just the community, the way they embrace it and the things Coach Cal and the coaching staff have helped and done for me, it really saved my life and put me in a different position that I’m extremely grateful for. Most people can’t say they joined a fraternity, a brotherhood like this one. It’s really La Familia. It’s a family here.”

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How Davion Mintz embraced Kentucky basketball

Kentucky guard Davion Mintz laughs after missing a shot at the buzzer to end the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Kentucky and Vanderbilt Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Mintz’s play was one of the few bright spots in Kentucky’s embarrassing season.

Recruited as a likely six man capable of filling in at any spot in the backcourt, Mintz ended up leading the Wildcats in scoring. He hit go-ahead 3s in the final minute of two of Kentucky’s nine wins. When Calipari moved Mintz to point guard for the final three games of the season, he responded by averaging 15.3 points with 23 assists and three turnovers.

But Mintz’s breakout performance came with Rupp Arena capacity limited to just 15% and players locked down from interacting with fans out of fear of contracting the coronavirus.

With his younger siblings spending much of the year in online school, at least one of Mintz’s parents was able to attend every home game and most of the road games. Other than a brief hello after the SEC Tournament loss, his parents never met Calipari face to face until a visit to Lexington earlier this summer.

“Davion was one of the most appreciative young people I've been around,” Calipari said. “He made statements to me about this program. He'd look at me and say, ‘You saved my life.’

“What are you talking about? ‘Coach, you gave me a chance. You breathed life into me again so I could do what I love doing.’”

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That renewed passion for the game was apparent to Mintz’s family as they made the trip back and forth between Charlotte, North Carolina and Lexington.

An ankle injury had caused Mintz to miss his entire senior season at Creighton. As he watched from the sideline, his teammates won a Big East championship.

Even though the Bluejays were projected to enter the 2020-21 season as a top-25 team, Mintz felt like he needed a change. He placed his name in the transfer portal, hoping a marquee program might show some interest in a player who had started all but one game of his last two healthy seasons.

“Him being down, not knowing what his next steps were -- whatever he was trying to accomplish in the future, is this going to happen, is this not going to happen? -- to get that phone call, I think Kentucky really did kind of put that fun back into his game, that excitement back into his game,” Mintz’s mother, Sandy, told the Courier Journal. “Putting on that Kentucky uniform, nothing can beat that.”

By the time Mintz committed to Kentucky, the COVID-19 pandemic had already shut down the sports world, but there was still hope the restrictions would only last weeks instead of more than a year.

Mintz arrived on campus to a lockdown that prevented him interacting closely with his new teammates on the practice court or in the dorm. The season was eventually delayed. Instead of being welcomed to Kentucky by more than 20,000 screaming fans at Big Blue Madness, Mintz participated in a pre-packaged made-for-television event recorded with no fans in the Memorial Coliseum stands.

Preseason exhibitions were canceled, as were many of the fall semester games against low-major opponents Calipari’s young Kentucky teams use to find their early footing. When Mintz finally did get to play for Kentucky, he did so in front of just more than 3,000 fans spread out in the cavernous 20,000-seat Rupp Arena.

A season-opening blowout of Morehead State proved to be fool’s gold as Kentucky lost each of its next six games. A three-game winning streak in early January offered hope for a turnaround, but the 4-6 record on Jan. 9 proved to be the high-water mark in SEC play as the Wildcats dropped seven of their next eight games to end any hopes of rallying for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Meanwhile, a vocal portion of the Kentucky fan base took to social media to voice its displeasure about the team’s decision to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racial inequality before the Florida game.

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The March 11 loss to Mississippi State in Nashville officially ended a season that had long been dead in the water.

Frustration showed for Mintz at times as he was often chosen to speak for the team in postgame Zoom news conferences as the losses mounted, but behind the scenes he was doing everything he could to soak up what little of a “normal” Kentucky experience was available.

“You never know who you meet outside of just walking down the street or social media guys, fans,” Mintz said. “People really care and want to see you succeed. Me just being humble and still knowing that although it’s a tough year, I’ve got to stay focused, stay dedicated, be in the gym and handle what I have to do. Just try to bring others along with me.

“It was a tough year, but just being mature, understanding that it can’t rain forever, and the sun has to come out eventually to dry everything up. That’s just kind of the approach I took with it.”

Why Davion Mintz returned to Kentucky for another season

UK's Davion Mintz (10), left, and Dontaie Allen (11) celebrated after Mintz hit the game-winning shot against Vanderbilt in Rupp Arena in Lexington. on Jan. 5, 2021.

In his heart, Mintz believes he is an NBA player.

The same competitive drive his mother has noticed since Mintz was a young child led him to test the draft waters. Many expected Mintz to sign a professional contract overseas or try to work his way through the G League instead of coming back to school, but Mintz had no interest in following a predictable script.

“He kept saying I have a job to finish, I owe the fans,” Sandy Mintz said. “All he talked about was the fans: ‘I owe it to my fans.’ People were tweeting things, reaching out to him. … I know he was kind of torn just a little bit, but he did feel like he had some unfinished business as well at UK.”

There were basketball reasons for Mintz to return.

He felt his potential was unlocked by Calipari’s system and hoped another impressive season for a winning Kentucky team would prove to NBA scouts he was a late bloomer, not a product of a bad team needing someone to score.

But Mintz knew the roster he would return to was far deeper than the one he left.

Kentucky added transfer guards Kellan Grady, Sahvir Wheeler and C.J. Fredrick along with five-star point guard recruit TyTy Washington. With Dontaie Allen, Keion Brooks and Jacob Toppin also back to compete for minutes on the wing, there was no guarantee Mintz would even start during his “super senior” season.

“I didn’t know kind of how things would mesh until I kind of got back in the summer,” Mintz said. “I saw the attitudes of the guys and I saw the demeanor that everyone carried. They kind of welcomed me back in an area: You belong here, we have a space for you. Not from the coaching staff, the team. It starts within the team, how they embrace you.”

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Of course, the better roster increases the chances Mintz gets to experience what playing for a winning Kentucky team actually feels like.

As of now, UK is planning to play in front of a full-capacity Rupp Arena, but with COVID-19 cases soaring again, Mintz knows his final college season might still not be normal.

It’s close enough though to begin dreaming of what it would feel like to duplicate his game-winning 3 against Vanderbilt in front of a capacity crowd. If somehow his penchant for hitting clutch shots carried over to a deep NCAA Tournament run, Mintz knows the experience would be unlike anything else in his career.

Since Mintz did not play during his last season at Creighton, it will have been more than two years since his last game in front of a packed arena when Kentucky opens its season against Duke in the Champions Classic on Nov. 9.

Mintz may have already gotten more than he could have ever hoped for out of playing for Kentucky, but the dream of even more grows by the day. If Mintz could be embraced by Kentucky so easily during the worst season in the modern era of the program, imagine how beloved he might become as a key piece on the squad that returned the program to its normal spot atop the college basketball world.

More than anything, Mintz wants to make sure he repays Kentucky for what the program has already given him.

“I get it’s cliché or whatever, but deep down in my heart I didn’t want to leave this university like this,” Mintz said. “The respect that I have and the legacy, it really means a lot. I’m not even from Kentucky. I wasn’t a Kentucky fan growing up, but I was a blue-blood basketball fan.

“The respect I have for this school and this program and the players that came and paved the way before me, I couldn’t leave on the type of year that we had. I want to leave something special.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ