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Calipari

By LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky coach John Calipari started a national media tour Monday to promote his new book, “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out,” and admitted he had no idea how many players would leave UK early for the NBA draft and denied reports that he had any interest in coaching the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know right now,” said Calipari on the Dan Patrick Show when asked how many players might leave UK. “We had great conversations. They all have the information. I am not going to meet with them nine times. This is it. Tell me what you want to do so I can help you.”

He later when on Kentucky Sports Radio and said he called 10 NBA general managers the day after UK lost to Connecticut in the national championship game to gauge where his players might land in the draft. He said he even had one player on the way to the airport in Dallas after the title game he told him he didn’t want to leave UK.

“As I was doing all of the other research, they were throwing his name in, and a couple of them told me he could be a first round pick. So, I had to call him back in and say, ‘I know what you said to me, but you and your mom need to sit down and talk about this because here’s some of the information I’m getting,’” Calipari said.

“If you’re in the first round, you’ve got to go do this, if you’re in the lottery, you’ve got to go do this.” In fact, if a player wants to come back, he has them sit down and explain why, like Patrick Patterson did back in 2009,” Calipari said.

Calipari said he doesn’t see any way all eight players that might consider leaving early would do that. He noted they have until April 27 to make a decision to put their names into the draft and that they are “not hurting” him or UK by waiting to make a decision.

“You obviously know that there’s a couple, they’re going to go, and then there’s three or four that are like ‘what will you guys do?’ At this point? I don’t know. I don’t think all eight will leave. How about that? We finally will have some guys come back. I don’t think eight will go, but five, six, four, I don’t know,” he said.

He also addressed the rumor former Kentucky star Rex Chapman put out a few hours before the national championship game that he had been told it was a “done deal” that Calipari was going to be the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Obviously it is not true,” Calipari told Patrick.

He said he was “surprised” that Chapman put that message on Twitter.

“You know, every year I have coached I am going somewhere. That is all part of being the coach at Kentucky but that disappointed me in that unless the Lakers told him, which I know wasn’t done … They had a coach. We had a coach. Getting ready for the championship game. I am not mad at Rex. We are moving on,” Calipari said.

Calipari said the rumor was not a distraction for him or the team because they didn’t know about it until after the game.

Patrick asked if Calipari would one day like to be offered the Lakers job?

“No, I am good We need to get this thing to two years (before a player can leave college for the NBA),” he said.

He said on Kentucky Sports Radio that he had a “great job” where he could impact the lives of players and their families and wanted to keep doing that. However, he told Patrick if players are still able to leave school after one year that it would “be hard” for him to still be coaching in three to five years.

“The option is to recruit players that are not good enough (to leave UK for the NBA after one year) or convince kids that should leave that they should stay,” Calipari told Patrick. “I am not comfortable with that and BBN is not comfortable with the first one (recruiting players not as good). Let’s get to two years because that is good for everyone.”

Calipari said even if he didn’t get the top-ranked players, the 50th rated recruit would still think he could be a one-and-done player.

“If I try to talk them into staying, people are going to say I am doing it for me,” he told Patrick. “I give information to families and they make the decisions. I can’t go at this any other way.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

ATLANTA — Kentucky started the season ranked No. 1 in most polls, but it was Florida that ended the year No. 1 and unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play.

That’s why the Wildcats wouldn’t deny they were looking forward to a third meeting with the Gators in Sunday’s Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. Florida advanced with a come from behind win over Tennessee Saturday while UK beat Georgia 70-58 to set up a third meeting between the two rivals.

“We are a different team now,” said Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison. “So we’ll see how we can do. Mainly we just have to worry about playing like we can and not worry about what Florida does.”

What the Gators have done, though, is use an effective defense and balanced offense to beat UK 69-59 in Rupp Arena and 84-65 in Gainesville just a week ago to end the regular season.

“Everybody is glad we are playing them,” Kentucky sophomore Alex Poythress said. “It will be a war. We know that. But we think we can stay in the game and be right there. They are a good team and play good team ball. But we are looking forward to the game. We know we are playing better now than we were even a week ago. We just want a chance to get after them.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari was not quite as anxious to take another run at Florida’s senior-dominated team.

“I’ve had enough of Florida. For four years I’ve seen the same guys. Some of them I think five years. I think they got a special program down there where they keep guys for six years,” Calipari joked. “But what a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. You’re talking about a team that it’s almost an honor to play a team like that. I understand when this game is close, they will not give you the game, and if you don’t fight like heck, they’re taking it from you. That’s who they are and that’s who they have been all year.  I don’t see it changing.

“Now that means when we go against them, you’re going to have to take it. They will not give it to you. As you’re trying to take it, they’re trying to take it from you. So they absolutely bashed us down there. We weren’t even in the game. Then we make a 15‑0 run and get it close, and then they bash us again.

“My players can all say what they want. I’m not looking forward to playing Florida again. But you know what? We are here, I don’t think they’re going to let us leave, so we’re going to go play this game and see what happens.”

Still, his players didn’t back down from the chance to go against Florida.

“They got us both times. We will try to treat it as just another game, but I am glad we have got them,” James Young said. “Florida is just another good team. We have to leave it all on the floor and just execute. We can’t give them open shots and let their defense get to us. I think we are more confident than when we played them before. They are good, but we’ll see what happens.”

Dakari Johnson said Florida’s “team play” stood out to him both games and that when adversity hits, the Gators come together — something UK has finally done better in this tournament.

“It would mean a lot to win this game,” Johnson, who has two former high school teammates playing for Florida, said. “We just have to worry about executing like we can and see what happens. We can’t let them pound us on the boards or getting easy shots in transition. We have to play even better than we have these last two games.

“But we are just playing. We are not worried about what’s going to happen. We just have to keep being physical and playing hard against Florida like we have been.”

Willie Cauley-Stein said Calipari told them a win over Florida “would be cool” but that it is not the end-all to UK’s goal of winning a national title.

“It doesn’t really mean anything. We are trying to make a run to the Final Four. Obviously we will play to win and want to win, but the goal remains the Final Four no matter what happens,” Cauley-Stein said.

By LARRY VAUGHT

ATLANTA — It was not his highest scoring game at Kentucky, but Friday’s win over LSU in the Southeastern Conference Tournament might have been Andrew Harrison’s best game at Kentucky.

The freshman point guard took only four shots, but still managed 11 points because he was 7-for-8 at the foul line. He had a career-high eight assists in the 85-67 win along with three rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot in a team-high 36 minutes to more than offset his three second-half turnovers.

“He played well.  And the biggest thing, I thought he did a pretty good job defending,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He pushed the ball. That’s how we want him to play. We shared the ball. It wasn’t just Andrew, we all shared the ball.”

Andrew Harrison appreciated Calipari putting the ball in his hands to make plays.

“It felt great,” Harrison, who tied Rajon Rondo for fifth on the single-season assist list at UK with 118, said. “I know I wasn’t playing to my full potential. Inconsistently, I was playing pretty bad. I just wanted to come out here and get the ball to my teammates in the right position.

“We were just all playing as a team.  Our wings were knocking down shots, big shots. If we play as a team and play defense and get stops, it’s pretty hard to beat us.  I think we’re starting to have more fun out there.”

He didn’t want to say it was his best overall game — and even showed a rare sense of humor when asked about that.

“I don’t know. How many points did I have?” Harrison said.

After a brief pause, he laughed and added, “I am just joking. I was just out there. My goal is to be the best point guard in the country. I think I am starting to make strides. I know it is is late, but there can’t be a better time.

“You have to give all the credit to my teammates. I was just finding them for open shots and they were making them tonight. I feel like we were playing a little stressed. Coach tells us we have nothing to be stressed about. We have to keep playing like we did when we first started and have fun.”

The Cats did some of that before the tournament when Calipari allowed them to shred game DVDs — both wins and losses — from the season to show the team had a “clean slate” going into postseason play.

“Coach Just told use we have a new slate and we have eto play. We lost some games that we should not have lost. Not to take away from any teams that beat us, but we did not play as well as we could and I know I did not,” Harrison said.

However, his overall play against LSU could have been the breakout game UK has been needing from him.

“As a point guard and running our team, he was amazing. (This) is what we get when he plays like that and runs our team,” Aaron Harrison, his twin brother, said after he had 14 points and two assists Friday. “But that is how I am used to seeing him playing.”

The point guard didn’t mind taking his second lowest number of shots this season, especially after missing 31 of 47 shots the previous six games.

“I was trying to get my teammates involved at first and just have fun out there,” Harrison said. “Teams usually play me to score now, so I am just trying to help my teammates. We have so much talent on our team at the wing positions with Aaronand James (Young) and the bigs with with Julius (Randle), Dakari (Johnson) and Willie (Cauley-Stein). It is fun to be out there.

“We just ran. We had to fly up and down the court and we did. Coach just told us to push the ball and that’s what I was doing. I was finding teammates.”

He said the Cats just “locked in” on defense against the smaller, quicker LSU guards.

“They made a lot of tough 3’s early and we knew it was pretty much impossible for them to shoot whole game like that. We stuck to our fundamentals. We were just sliding our feet and ready for them,” he said.

Harrison also helped hold the team together when LSU cut UK’s big second half lead to three points.

“Having a will to win. I know it is a cliche, but just refuse to lose. Be ready at all times. They are a great team and you have to take a punch and keep fighting. That’s what we did,” Harrison said.

Here’s what Kentucky coach John Calipari had to say after Friday night’s win over LSU that put UK into the SEC Tournament semifinals:

Q.  Willie Cauley-Stein has been in and out of the starting lineup, but when he comes off the bench, do you like what he brings in terms of that shot blocking, that energy?
CALIPARI:  “Well, he can do that starting, too.  I just think that Dakari, there are times where he’s just so effective, they both are, and even played them both together.  We had two 7‑footers out there today.  Willie can play four.  He can do it.
“I thought Alex did some good things.  Alex made the biggest shot of the day in the three in the corner.  Got in a little bit of foul trouble, but Julius missed six one‑footers or he would have had 30 points today.  We missed a lot of free throws, too, but so did they.
“But I like our big guys.  We’re a good big team.  We’re a big time rebounding team.  We’re a driving team that tries to get fouled.  When we shoot more fouls than the other team and we’re able to play through the bumps, we’re usually pretty good.

Q.  There were a lot of improvements tonight.  Was there one in particular that pleased you more than any?
CALIPARI:  “Yeah, 15 assists and nine turns.  I say that, I mean, think of the one‑footers we missed.  We literally missed eight shots at one, point blank range.
“Then from the free throw line, Julius is nine out of 16.  Come on.  I mean, he’s a really good free throw shooter.
“But again, what I liked is that I think in these tournaments what you know is, even when you’re a terrific defensive team, you have to score, because the other team may be able to.  So you got to make shots.  We made those today.  You can go 2‑19 from the three and win, not when all the teams are good.
“So that’s one of the emphases that we talked about that and we did it.  I was a little disappointed in our free throw shooting because we had been making free throws.  But we got to the line a ton, and deservedly so.”

Q.  You made second shots well all year, but tonight they made first shots better.  Does that go back to sharing the ball?
CALIPARI:  “You say that, but I’m telling you, Julius missed at least six like right at the rim.  Instead of going right at the rim, he was going like this (Indicating).  I don’t know why he was doing it.  Maybe because the last time we played them down at LSU he got eight shots blocked.  So maybe that’s why he was doing it.
“But that’s not who he is.  At the end of the game you saw him getting to the rim and making those layups which he makes.  But again, they’re in the right frame of mind.  They had a swagger.  They had a swagger for two days.  The start of the game was me, and they knew it and I told them. They’re like, Well, who should go and they’re playing… Stop.  We’re not going any more.
“They made a little adjustment.  So we’re going to have to go back to just digging.  We’re not going to go trap.  Then after that, the game kind of settled down.”

Q.  With the way that the referees had called the basketball for the whole year, what made you think that you could come in here and start playing physical, use hands?
CALIPARI:  “Because the last month of the season, every game got more and more physical.  The teams that were playing that way and body‑to‑body stuff were having a big time advantage.  I said we’re not going down because of that.
“All year we had taught one way, which is keep your hands off them.  There’s no body contact.  We’re doing exactly the way these rules were going to be called.  It’s just a natural thing, as the season went on, it got more and more physical, almost to the point where it was last year again.
“Now I think what will happen in tournament play in the NCAA tournament, the best officials will be doing these games, and they want to advance.  You won’t believe this, they want to advance.  So if there’s body‑to‑body contact, they’re going to call the foul.  They want to advance.  If there’s seven of them, they don’t call, they’re not advancing them.  So it will settle down.
“But it was good for us.  It wasn’t just for us to foul the other team, it’s so that we could play through the bumps we were getting, if you know what I’m saying.  We even missed a couple today because they got a little bit physical.

Q.  It seemed like the intensity level through the whole game was picked up a notch.  How much do you think the football type practices contributed to that?
CALIPARI:  “Well, we went longer than I’ve ever coached at this time of the year.  We went two and a half hours, two hours and 15 minutes, an hour and 45 minutes.  Then yesterday, we went 45 in here and went 50 at the Hawk’s facility.  The 50 at the Hawk’s facility, I told them, This is our game.  LSU is playing tonight, we’re playing for 45 minutes, and we got after it.
“The issue becomes what if someone got hurt.  I was really willing to roll the dice because we were not going to play and change unless I did something like that.  Again, they have to respond to it and they did.  They want to do well and they want to win.  They have been built up and all the other stuff, and they had a lot of stuff.  We’re playing all freshmen, couple sophomores and all freshmen.
“It’s been a tough road, and I think they have had a fabulous year.  I really do.  Yeah, there were two losses, maybe three that I thought we should have gotten.  One non‑conference, a couple conference wins, should have won those games.  We didn’t.  So okay.  Difference between three games and where we are?  Come on.  I think this team has done well.  Now let’s see if we can continue on this path and really make some people mad.”

Q.  Could you comment on the presence of the crowd tonight and how it may have helped your young team in its first tournament appearance for lot of these guys?
CALIPARI:  “Yeah, I think when they made their run and we needed to have a will to win, and we made a basket or two, they got this team going.  They really did. I think the other thing is, LSU gave everything they could.  They just played last night.  I mean they had just played.  So I think at that last five minutes, it was tough for them because they played a game.  Good news is from this point on, everybody’s played.  So now maybe a team that’s on its third game, you have a little advantage, but we’ll see.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said UK’s length not only led to a 44-24 advantage in points in the paint for UK, but also contributed to his two best players — Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers — going a combined 10-for-31 from the field in UK’s 80-64 win.

“Their length was problematic. They were switching ball screens. We are never very proficient at the rim, but in the first half our big guys were at least cleaning up and that’s what kept us in the game,” Kennedy said.

“But their length bothered us. We couldn’t stop them. They only missed 10 field goals in the second half and part of that was at the end. An Ole Miss Rebel did not grab a defensive rebound until two minutes were left in the half. I have never seen that.”

That’s because UK’s inside players finally went to work dominating the boards led by Willie Cauley-Stein, who had 18 points (7-for-8), 11 rebounds, six blocked shots, two assists and one steal. That’s better production than he’s almost had in the past five games combined.

“He was outstanding tonight,” Kennedy said. “He has shown himself to be a complete player and his length was very bothersome. He finished everything at the basket. Even when we got a stop, he was there to clean up and finish through contact.”

Mike DeCourcy

Mike DeCourcy

By LARRY VAUGHT

With Kentucky now 15-5 — remember all the preseason speculation about the team maybe going 40-0 with perhaps the all-time best recruiting class — is it time to admit the Wildcats were overrated going into the season? Or is it time to acknowledge that the team has just underachieved going into Saturday’s game at Missouri?

Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy, who knows UK coach John Calipari well, thinks it might be a combination of both factors that have led to unexpected defeats and sometimes uninspired play.

“I did think Kentucky would be a lot better, and John (Calipari) did, too,” DeCourcy said. “Defensively, they are not playing with great energy or passion. Offensively, they don’t have a lot of cohesion. They do not always play with each other. There has been a little progress from when I saw them against Louisville.

“James Young has gotten better, but I would just like one time to see him pass up an okay shot to see if a great shot was available. I have never seen him pass up an open shot ever. If he has a shot, he shoots it. If he was Pistol Pete Maravich and there were not a lot of guys to throw the ball to, that’s one thing. But he’s often playing with four future NBA players.”

He’s not picking on Young, either, because he acknowledges that guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, both projected as the top players at their positions in the 2013 recruiting class, have struggled. Andrew, the point guard, was ranked as the third best overall player in the 2013 class. But in the last five games, he has 19 assists, including just one in Tuesday’s loss at LSU, and 13 turnovers while shooting just over 30 percent from the field.

“Andrew is 6-5 but he is not a commanding point guard presence like you would think the second or third best overall player in a recruiting class would be,” DeCourcy said. “This year Emmanuel Mudiay (who picked SMU over Kentucky) is a phenomenal athlete but I am not sure about him being the next great point guard.

“Andrew and Aaron are both fine players, just maybe not the players they were promoted to be. They were ranked in the same neighborhood as (Andrew Wiggins), (Julius) Randle and (Jabari) Parker and you’ve got to be extraordinary to be in there with those guys. But they are still future NBA players. Don’t get me wrong. They are still excellent players.

Randle, once considered a potential No. 1 pick in the June NBA draft, has had his stock, too. He’s scored 20 or more points in just one of the last five games — with 16 turnovers — and had just six points and five rebounds at LSU while being outplayed by freshman Jordan Mickey.

“Julius’ problem is somewhat that he doesn’t get access to the ball as regularly as he would like or should be,” DeCourcy said. “Then when he gets the ball, he tries to do more than he should. When LSU played that zone, he tried to go through it instead of around it. If you try to take on a zone and go through it, you are going to lose every time. Even a bad zone beats you if you try to go through it. If you go around it, you have a chance.

“Julius tried to go straight through the heart of the zone and struggled as a result. That’s been his problem. When teams play man and rotate help on him, he can fight through that. He has momentum to beat his man and the other guy is coming late, so he’s just beating on man and making plays before the other arrives. In the zone, he’s trying to do the same thing facing two or three guys who are where they want to be and that doesn’t work.”

Perhaps the most puzzling player, though, has been Willie Cauley-Stein. Once on pace to challenge the blocked shots exploits of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel, Cauley-Stein has become a non-factor in recent games. He was manhandled by LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant much like he was by Tennessee’s inside player. He has blocked one shot or none in four of the last five game and played less than 20 minutes in all four games — and without him UK has not had a rim protector.

“I don’t know why he is not competing. I don’t understand why he has become less competitive,” DeCourcy said. “When you see something like that, there is usually a reason behind it. Maybe he has a pain he’s hiding and playing through. It could be something personal. It just doesn’t make sense and is not typical for someone who has been competitive like he has.”

uk basketball logoBy LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne didn’t mince words about what was wrong with UK’s play in Tuesday’s 87-82 loss at LSU — a game where the No. 11 Cats fell behind 22-6 to start the game.

“It was very disappointing for our players, our coaching staff,” said Payne on the UK Radio Network postgame show. “We gave them a game plan and the didn’t execute. More important, they didn’t fight. It’s all about fighting, not strategy, not X’s and O’s. It’s about fighting and we didn’t fight and that’s disappointing.”

LSU certainly came out fighting.

“We needed this game really bad. We went out and executed our game plan for the whole 40 minutes,” LSU freshman Jordan Mickey said. “It was all a team effort. We tried to limit them to one shot. We did a great job rebounding and getting the tough 50/50 balls. We hustled a lot and it was just a great team effort.”

“We wanted to come out aggressive. I think when I scored those first couple of baskets, the team really rallied around me. They just fed off my energy to begin with,” LSU center Johnny O’Bryant said. “I really tried to attack them. I knew that they were young guys and I had an advantage in experience and body wise. I was going at them all night.”

Payne agreed and that both frustrated and irritated him. He noted that not only did O’Bryant dominate inside, but the Tigers also made seven 3-pointers.

“They took the fight to us and we didn’t respond and that’s not quite good enough,” Payne said. “In the post, the game plan was to trap Johnny O’Bryant.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari said it was his fault for not trapping O’Bryant from the start, but Payne offered a different explanation.

“Initially, we did not get that done for whatever reasons. Mentally, we just were not ready,” Payne said. “He wanted to play well against Kentucky and he dominated us. That’s the mental part of the game to execute. We worked on that but we are not getting that for whatever reason. You can blame it on youth, but at the end of the day you have a job to do and you have got to do it.

“We had been practicing well. We had been playing well. It would have been nice to come out and fight and play the game we know we can play and see where the chips would fall. But to go out and play like this … and no disrespect to them. They took the fight to us and outplayed us.”

Payne credited Dakari Johnson for the way “he battled and did everything we asked him to do.” He said the freshman did a “hell of a job” against LSU.

He had different thoughts about Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein, who was shown on TV exchanging heated words with Payne on the bench.

“We fight for low post position. Play strong. You can’t run from people,” Payne said. “You have to be the aggressor and get the ball in the basket. It just comes down to fighting.”

Kentucky will get another chance to show it can “fight” at Missouri Saturday. The Tigers are coming off a win at Arkansas — a team that beat UK in overtime. Chances are Missouri will view the game as a resume-builder just like LSU did.

“Kentucky, with the history and tradition that they have in our league, being ranked in the top-15 or top-20 teams in the country, is a big win for us,” Jones said. “That was a huge win for us. We know we have a lot of season left in front of us, but we certainly think that’s a really good win for us.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON — Want to know what was the best part of Kentucky’s 79-54 win over Georgia here Saturday?

Points leader — Aaron Harrison, 15. Rebound leader — Julius Randle, 9. Assists leader — Andrew Harrison, 5. Blocks leader — Willie Cauley-Stein, 6.

It was simply a game where players did what they were supposed to do — 11 players scored and six scored at least 7 points. Andrew Harrison may have had his best overall game as several times he made eye contact with teammates on fast breaks that led to lob passes for dunks. He also didn’t always force his way to the basket and hit pull-up jump shots. Aaron Harrison was 6-for-10 from the field and also had three assists, one block and one steal.

Randle had the defense collapse on him — what’s new in Southeastern Conference play — but passed the ball better and was content to hit the boards rather than force bad shots. But he still battled and scored 14 points while letting the game come to him.

Cauley-Stein? He was his old self and not that Cauley-Stein of the recent three-game slump. Maybe it was the headband he put back on. Whatever it was, he was playing with energy and doing a little bit of everything. Not only did he block six shots (he had two in the last three games), but he also had three rebounds, eight points and career-high six steals.

Need more? Alex Poythress came off the bench to score 11 points and was strong inside again. James Young hit outside shots and scored 13 points.

“I think that is strength of their team that a lot of guys finish plays,” Georgia coach Mark Fox, who had to play without his best two shooting guards due to injury and was limited offensively because of that. “You can not just slow down one guy. Their balance makes them very difficult to defend.”

He also wanted no part of hearing about Cauley-Stein’s three-game slump.

“He grew up 50 miles from where I did (in Kansas). I don’t think he’s slumping,”Fox said. “They have a lot of guys making plays. He is a terrific player. I don’t think he’s slumping. It just comes with the territory.”

That territory as UK includes being judged on postseason success. This team came into the season ranked No. 1, but lost close games to Michigan State, Baylor, North Carolina and Arkansas. Calipari has cited the team’s youth and need to learn how to play as a team and not as individuals. But maybe, must maybe, the Cats are starting to get that message.

“I like this team. Will we be disciplined enough to be special?” Calipari said after the win. “It’s not about enough bodies or talent. Will we become the team we can be and have the discipline it takes to do something really unique and special? We will see.”

But wasn’t today a step in that direction or not?

“It is about players first. You’ve got to get them right. You’ve got to get them in the frame of mind, and then you get your team right,” Calipari said. “Now for us that means … if you in any way are not playing for your team, you’re watching me sub guys out now. You’re out. Somebody else is playing. And I’m trying to hold them more accountable.”

The players know — and seem to be accepting that.

“Two months ago we were all playing for ourselves and thinking about ourselves and not each other,” Young, who was 5-for-10 from the field, said. “Now we know if one does good, we all do good. A lot of guys are starting to do individual work on their own. That is getting everybody ready and better.

“It’s a process, something we understand now. You have to take it day by day to get better. Every day our communication is getting better.”

That certainly goes for Andrew Harrison, who had seven points, five assists, one steal, one block, three rebounds and three turnovers in 29 minutes. The only thing he did that upset Calipari was that he missed “like three runners” and put his head down.

“I took him out. It’s a great shot, you missed it. But you’re going to have an attitude, head down on that? It was a great shot. That’s the thing, he and his brother (Aaron) are getting by, so now you don’t see it as much any more. They understand. Just play for your team, take the shots you’re supposed to take,” Calipari said.

Aaron Harrison says the team’s improved play goes back to the way his brother, Andrew, is playing at point guard.

“Andrew is the reason why we are looking better,” Aaron Harrison said. “He’s running the team, passing the ball, playing D (defense). He is doing a good job.

“We also were more focused as a team. Everybody wanted to make a statement with our play today.”

Now UK has to make that statement with road games at LSU and Missouri. Win those two and UK could be back close to the top 10 in the national rankings and stay within range of Florida in the SEC race. More importantly, it would continue the upward curve the Cats seem to be on.

“This was a good game for us,” Calipari said. “We’re learning. They’re trying.”

Young said Calipari is right now about it coming down to mental discipline.

“Like when we come out of a timeout and he tells us to run one play and we do not, or did not,” Young said. “That’s what he’s talking about. We have to execute each play and not just do things on our own. That’s what we are learning and did better in this game, but there’s still a lot to learn.”

Willie Cauley-Stein attempts a shot in Kentucky's win over Texas A&M Tuesday. (Victoria Graff photo)

Willie Cauley-Stein attempts a shot in Kentucky’s win over Texas A&M Tuesday. (Victoria Graff photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

What is wrong with Willie Cauley-Stein?

That’s the question most Kentucky basketball fans, and maybe even coach John Calipari, want answered after the 7-foot sophomore center had his third straight lacklustre performance Tuesday in a win over Texas A&M.

Cauley-Stein played a season-low nine minutes — only twice in his freshman season did he play fewer minutes in a game. He missed his only two shots, made only one of four free throws, grabbed a season-low one rebound and for only the second time this season did not block a shot.

That came after he had just three rebounds, one block and no points against Tennessee the game before and just two points, six rebounds and one block before that in the overtime loss at Arkansas.

Cauley-Stein has three points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in the last three games. Compare that to the 15 points, six rebounds and one block he had against Vanderbilt before the streak started.

Cauley-Stein was almost listless and was a non-factor on both ends against Texas A&M. Freshman center Dakari Johnson filled in well — just as he did against Tennessee — and even started the second half. But he’s not the rim protector Cauley-Stein is even though he did have three blocked shots because he’s not as athletic as Cauley-Stein.

“I’ve just been trying to come off the bench and give a little spark to the team, bring energy. So that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Johnson after Tuesday’s game. “I’m not sure what’s wrong with Willie. I know he’ll bounce back. He’ll have some great practices. We really need him to step up if we want to do anything special, but he’ll be fine. He has been playing well in practice, he really has. So I am positive he will bounce back. Everybody is (positive).”

Freshman Julius Randle isn’t worried about Cauley-Stein’s slump and knows how much the Wildcats need Cauley-Stein’s overall presence.

“I can’t really speak for Willie. All I can really say is this season we’ve all seen what he can do,” said Randle. “As far as the defensive end, he changes the game completely. And offensively if he’s aggressive he really changes the game. We’re not going to be where we want to be unless Willie’s playing well and we all know that.

“I can’t say it’s a lack of him no practicing hard or putting in extra effort or extra work at night with coaches. I’ve seen him do it before practice, after practice, stuff like that. So I think it’ll come around him.”

So what does Calipari think is going on?

“I don’t know what’s wrong with Willie, but he’ll be fine,” Calipari said after the win. “I just … look, when you’re a coach and you coach the game to win. Then you work on egos and all the other stuff after. Dakari was playing better than him, so I started Dakari (in the second half). Dakari continued to play better than him.  At the end of the game, I said (to Cauley-Stein), “Look, we’re going at you. You got to get going here, kid.’ He turned and fumbled. I mean, it didn’t get any better.

“You know, he wants to do well. He was doing really well, and he backed up a little bit. It’s like a slippery slope. When you back up, you don’t keep bringing it. All of a sudden you go that other way. This sport is mental as much as anything else.”

It is. Kentucky fans wonder if Cauley-Stein should go back to wearing his head band. Or maybe dye his hair blonde again — and leave it that way.

Whatever the reason, it’s the worst slump he’s had since Nerlens Noel was injured midway of Southeastern Conference play and Cauley-Stein became a starter. He scored in double figures in four of UK’s final eight games to end last season and had six or more rebounds in every game  but one. He has seven double-figure scoring games this season and five games with 10 or more rebounds. He once ranked among the nation’s elite shot blockers even though he has just 10 in the last eight games now.

As the games have become more physical, he’s regressed except for his overall play against Louisville. Four times in the last six games he’s either failed to make a field goal or had just one. He’s 2-for-12 from the field in thos four games.

“He is doing fine. Willie is Willie. He has the same attitude. He says he will be fine. He’s just in a little slump. Everybody gets in a little slump, so he will bounce back,” Johnson said in defense of his teammate that he battles daily in practice.

Any chance Johnson has beat on Cauley-Stein too much in practice and wore him down physically since he seems to have lost his energy in games?

“He has been practicing really well. He knows he has not been playing well, so he is trying to practice hard and going hard and I am pretty sure he will be fine,” Johnson said.

But will he? Three games can be a slump that he could break out of Saturday against Georgia. If not, Johnson could continue to play more and compensate for Cauley-Stein’s inefficiency.

However, for UK to be the factor in postseason play that it wants to be, the Cats need the old Cauley-Stein that blocked shots, ran the court and hit the boards to reappear and do so soon.

UK coach John Calipari reacts to a play in the win over Tennessee. Clay Jackson photo/all rights reserved

UK coach John Calipari reacts to a play in the win over Tennessee. Clay Jackson photo/all rights reserved

By LARRY VAUGHT

Does it take longer for a big player like Dakari Johnson to develop than smaller perimeter players? Here’s the long answer John Calipari gave Saturday:

“Big players develop later, but again, all these guys, they’ve got to eliminate the clutter. You’ve got to quit    own your performance, come in, practice and work. And again, this is not a disrespectful thing, but you know how you get letters, and if there’s an addressed envelope, like I will never    my secretary doesn’t give me any unaddressed letters. They’re torn up, so I don’t even see them,” Calipari said.

“But someone sends me something about play more guys. If you play more guys, … which is  different teams. It’s harder when you’ve got a young team to play more guys because you’re trying to get your team right. But the second point I said, this is with all due respect, in 2010 when I called Coach (John) Wooden about my team, he told me I play too many guys. You need to play six or seven, maybe eight max if somebody is in foul trouble. All kind of ways of doing this.

“He was behind Willie; how well was Willie playing? Not a whole lot of minutes there. Now Willie is not playing as well, now you go do your minutes and prove you should play more. Own your performance. And he did. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of Alex.

You know, all these guys, I didn’t put Jon Hood in today. Jon has had the greatest attitude and the greatest approach and has grown so much in the time he’s been here, I just see him, like what do you want to do, do you want to get into coaching? What do you really want to do? But you just see the growth. Sometimes you see it fast; Alex it’s taken time. So what? What if it takes two years, three years? So? It does take time.

 

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