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Kentucky's Julius Mays (34) battles inside for a ball in the win over Portland. (Clay Jackson photo)

Kentucky’s Julius Mays (34) battles inside for a ball in the win over Portland. (Clay Jackson photo)

By KEITH TAYLOR, Winchester Sun

Julius Mays thinks Kentucky is starting to get the message from John Calipari  concerning the team’s lack of commitment to improvement.

The Kentucky senior said the Wildcats took a “step forward” toward that commitment in a 74-46 victory over Portland Saturday at Rupp Arena.

“We’ve got to want to be in the gym and he shouldn’t have to force us to be in there,” Mays said. “I think everyone is starting to get the message.”

Kentucky, which fell out the Associated Press Top 25 poll following back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor, recovered with wins over Samford and Portland this week, but Calipari wants his squad to return to elite status instead of settling for the status quo. Mays said the return back to the rankings and even the Top 10 will require even more dedication beyond the early morning conditioning workouts Calipari ordered following the win over Samford.

“It starts in practice and coming in and spending the extra time (in the gym), taking the coaching and what he’s telling us and putting it into the game,” Mays said.

Mays said the rest of his teammates are starting to “buy into” the Calipari’s concept of what it takes to return to an elite status. Calipari said the Wildcats have a choice to make during the next three weeks: Get better or settle.

“He knows what he’s talking about,” Mays said. “For him to say that it means a lot. Everyone has the notion that we want to get pushed or whatever it takes, because we want to be that top 10 team.”

Although the Wildcats took care of business against the Pilots and weren’t seriously threatened, Mays doesn’t think the team isn’t very good at this point in the season and hasn’t scratched the surface when it comes to their total potential.

“I feel like we can be really good once everybody gets on the same page and we start playing for each other at all times,” he said.

Mays scored 13 points and grabbed four rebounds against the Pilots in an outing that he said was better than the team’s previous two home games and cited an upgrade on the defensive end.

“We came out and did some things better, like defend and we pushed through, but obviously still have a long to go,” he said.

The Wildcats turned it on down the stretch and put the game away with an impressive array of dunks by Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein.

“That’s something that we’ve working on,” Mays said. “It’s always that when we come out in the second half, there always that five- to 10-minute span where we are really shaky and we allow (the other team) to score and we go in a scoring drought. It’s something that we’ve been working on and something that coach Calipari has been pushing us to work on.”

Calipari also has been urging Mays to add a stop and pop jumper to compliment his outside shooting skills and it showed in the early going against the Pilots.

“He’s been on me about doing more dribble pull-ups and not settling for a three so much,” he said. “I also came out and was aggressive. He’s also been on me for not being aggressive. I just came out, was aggressive. They were good shots and I was taking them.”

Once finals are complete this week, Mays thinks the Cats will make another leap forward, instead staying complacent. He added the improvement “depends on how much better a team wants to get” during the Christmas break.

“We can easily settle for who we are right now, or like coach Cal has been preaching to us, we can put the work in and be a very special team. It’s really all the mindset of what the majority of the players have on the team. I think right now, we hear what he is saying, but I don’t think right now they have (fully) bought in yet. But with these next three weeks, where we have all week to practice and just have Saturday games, I think you’ll see a lot of change.”

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