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By Keith Taylor
The Winchester Sun
LEXINGTON — Aaron Harrison is ready for the Wildcats to take the next step and knows what it will take for Kentucky to become more disciplined going into road contests at LSU and Missouri this week.
Following a successful three-game homestand, four of the team’s next five games are on the road, giving the Wildcats a chance to gauge their improvement six games into the Southeastern Conference schedule. Their only league loss was on the road at Arkansas earlier this month.
“It’s all about staying focused,” Harrison said. “We just need to keep talking to each other, pushing the ball and playing defense. Now we’re coming together as a team and starting to play harder. We can always get better and to take the next step, that’s what we need to do.”
The Kentucky guard doesn’t mind playing away from home and is “excited” about competing in a road environment.
“We like road games, kinda,” he said. “We come out with a chip on our shoulder and excited to play.”
Harrison attributes the team’s recent success to maturity and growth and the ability to rebound from a 87-85 overtime loss at Arkansas on Jan. 14. Harrison said the Wildcats have proven a point to conference foes during the current three-game winning streak.
“We’re learning about each other more offensively and defensively,” he said. “That helps a lot more. We came out and made a statement as a team.”
Harrison led the Wildcats in scoring in a 79-54 win over Georgia Saturday at Rupp Arena. He added three assists and didn’t have a turnover in 30 minutes. Since league play began, Harrison has scored double figures in four of six conference games and has scored double figures in 15 contests this season.
“We definitely moved the ball a lot better (against Georgia) than we have,” Harrison said. “We were all just ready to play and make plays when we did catch the ball.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari was pleased with Harrison’s numbers against the Bulldogs and liked his team approach. He added that Harrison attempted just two 3-pointers and relied more on his jump shot instead of settling for perimeter baskets.
“We’ve been on Aaron,” Calipari said. “Aaron played his butt off today but he shot all (two-point shots). I don’t want him to shoot threes. If you shoot a couple, that’s fine, but you’re not shooting six or seven threes. That’s not who we are as a team.”
“I took some more pull-up jumpers,” Harrison added. “I just need to stay aggressive, focused throughout the whole game.”
Along with his own contributions, Harrison was glad to see teammate Willie Cauley-Stein snap out of a slump with eight points, six blocks and six steals against the Bulldogs. Harrison said Cauley-Stein has “really been focused” in practice because he didn’t play as well as he could have the last couple of games.”
“He came out and really showed it,” Harrison said. “He definitely stepped it up. Everybody goes through a little slump and all. He’s tough-minded, so he came back and played well.”
In addition to Cauley-Stein’s contributions against the Bulldogs, Harrison liked the way the reserves performed. Derek Willis scored his first basket since Nov. 17 and Hood made a basket, his first field goal since Nov. 19.
“We are going to cheer for them just like they are going to cheer for us. We are really excited for them. It’s a good feeling to see the guys who really don’t get a chance to play as much as the other guys. We all played well.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
During his time as a college basketball coach, John Calipari has seen two looks from players. One indicates players want coaching and instruction.
“Then there’s a smirk,” said Calipari. “What I said: ‘The smirking ain’t working.’ You need to understand why we tell you to do certain things. I talked about (senior) Jon Hood. It’s amazing how much he’s grown. I mean, amazing. It’s like we have another coach in him.
“I told the team about Jon. I said, ‘Hey, if you want to know how good you are compared to who he’s played against, there is no player in the country that has played with more pros than Jon Hood (has at Kentucky).’ There isn’t one. There’s not one. Maybe never will be one.
“He’s gone from ‘What about me and da, da da to how do I help this team in what I do?’ And all the sudden he’s having a ball making it about everybody else, and if he gets his opportunity Jon Hood will be ready.”
Calipari used the growth of Alex Poythress as player to demonstrate the value of listening and learning.
“Alex now in my mind, when he’s 35 years old and something hits him, he’s not going to blame anybody, he’s not going to listen to the alibis,” Calipari said. “He’ll work on changing, and his, quote, failure won’t be for long. That’s what you hope you get from all this stuff: that you’re teaching life lessons, that they use this.
“But it’s like a diet. You do right for five days, doesn’t mean you’re going to lose 72 pounds. Maybe even gain weight. But you’re doing the right stuff, so you stay with it and you know it’s gonna work and you keep marching. That’s what I’m trying to tell all these kids.”
Freshman Derek Willis is another player Calipari thinks has benefited from listening.
“Derek, when he gets his opportunity, is going to do fine. He’s our best post passer. They play zone, I’m gonna start putting him in. We may be able to start playing zone (defense) with him, so now you’re really big, because he would be your three. You’re talking 6-10, 6-10 … I mean, it would be a huge zone if we want to play that way. So we’re talking about things that go beyond just the basketball,” Calipari said.
“But, again, the clutter they hear … A hundred-man marching band, and that band is (marching in places) step by step; Ninety-nine turn right, this guy turns left, and his people, that clutter, says to him, ‘What’s wrong with those other 99?’ That’s the clutter, and you’ve gotta get beyond that. ‘I’m owning what’s happening. I’m taking responsibility.’”
Kentucky plays at LSU Tuesday night and that could provide more opportunities for clutter. The Cats have lost only one Southeastern Conference game. But for several weeks Calipari has mentioned the “clutter” his team has dealt with this season.
“It’s everywhere. It’s not just here. I know it’s happening across the country. Everywhere. You can become delusional, and I’ve had guys do that,” Calipari said. “Like, you’re listening and buying it and it’s making you feel good and you become delusional. Or you can man up a little bit, own your own performance, listen to it but understand: This person is not helping me. Then you want that call less and less instead of more and more. ‘Tell me what I want to hear. It makes me feel good because I don’t want to take responsibility.’ Then that’s who you talk to all the time, become delusional.
“And let me just say this: What I’m saying, I’ve done this a long time; every team I’ve coached has the clutter. Now who’s going to deal with it and who’s not? My good teams don’t buy it. Sometimes the clutter is they’re on each other, the other players. ‘He shouldn’t be shooting all the balls. You’re better than …’ It’s everywhere. It’s not just here. Now is that a major problem? It might have been. I don’t know. But I know this: it’s out there now. If it was, I think it’s been addressed.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
He’s played only 30 minutes this season, and has not been in the last three games since going 0-for-2 from the field with one rebound in six minutes in Kentucky’s win over Vanderbilt. Yet Kentucky coach John Calipari insisted again after Tuesday’s win over Texas A&M that he wants to play freshman Derek Willis more, something he didn’t do when UK was up 18 points against the Aggies.
“I wanted to get Derek in a little bit and I didn’t because he’s starting to play better. I’ve just got to find minutes for him,” Calipari said. “I forgot at that point (with the 18-point lead) to be honest with you. It went to a minute and I said it’s too late now, I’m not going to stick him in. But there will be times he’s going to have opportunities. He’s just got to be ready.”
Calipari said Willis has been practicing well and when UK hosts Georgia Saturday, he might get his chance.
“Again, you’ve got to own your performance even if you’re not playing a lot. You’ve got to walk in and say not, well, if you played me more, or if I played like he played. He takes me out and doesn’t take — no, no. You own your performance,” Calipari said. “That’s where Dakari (Johnson) is slowly growing up and he’s owning his own performance now. Arkansas he wasn’t very good. He owned it. He came back and practiced his butt off and was really good, and it carried over.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari still thinks Derek Willis has a chance to find a key role on this team.
“He didn’t shoot the ball well, but I liked his post feed,” said Calipari about Willis’ play at Vanderbilt Saturday. “I like his size on the court. He hadn’t been shooting the ball well in practice, probably because he hadn’t been playing and he didn’t think it was important. Well, now he found out it was important. But I told him, I said, ‘You and Jarrod, it’s important that you guys are ready.’ I had told him for a week, ‘I’m going to try to put you in games if they’re smothering Julius and he’s kicking it out. If guys are missing, I’m putting you in. Get in there and make shots.’ His teammates are even telling him when they throw it to him, ‘Shoot it. We know you can shoot. Shoot it.’ ”
Willis is also a player — along with Dominique Hawkins — that Calipari knows has been putting in late-night work on his shot.
“We’re getting to where they understand. Look, I told the story – I had Tyreke Evans, and Tyreke really struggled early, now. I’m just telling you. We’re like, ‘One year? We’re gonna have this kid for four years.’ I mean, it was ugly. And it started getting better and it started getting better. We put the ball in his hand, but he knew, ‘Man, I got a long way to go.’ He slept in the practice facility. We had a lounge that, he had a lounge chair that he put a pillow and a blanket, and two to three times a week, he slept in the practice facility. Now, granted, the housing was seven blocks away. This housing is 12 steps,” the UK coach said.
“He still didn’t want to walk seven blocks. He said, ‘I’ll sleep here. I got to get up at 8 anyway.’ So guys have to be that committed and driven, and when you are, you don’t let go of the rope. Someone comes in to take it, you worked too hard. ‘I invested too much. You’re not taking this from me. You ain’t takin’ this from me. I don’t care how hard you play, how much you foul. It doesn’t matter. You’re not taking it.’ If you’re invested. If you’re not invested, only doing what you’re being told to do, you basically say, ‘No, no. Don’t go crazy. Just take it. You’re losing your mind. Here, take it.’ And so guys got to be more invested in this, and they’re beginning to be.”
Of course, that could be harder for Willis or any player to do now that classes have started back.
“Brandon (Knight) did it. Brandon did it. You know, how much do you have to play video games? Really? Got to get those two hours of video in, or how are you going to live. You got to be on your phone three hours reading everything, I mean, that’s tough. I mean, I cannot give up my video games. So I mean, there are things you got to look at and say, ‘What am I gonna give up to make sure?’” Calipari said.
“All I know is, Brandon was a straight-A student, and when I walked in this building at 12 o’clock at night or 11 o’clock at night from recruiting, he was in there. And he’s up there scoring 30. Think about it. And he’s skinnier than anybody we have on this team. So again, it’s just the Breakfast Club (from 2012), those kind of things, but it cannot come from me. Because if you drag them, they become exhausted. If they do it themselves, they become inspired. Now you can encourage it, but that’s the best you can do. If it comes from them, they’re inspired. If it comes from me, ‘He’s killing me! Dying! Oh, my gosh!’ ”
How hard has it been for Kentucky coach John Calipari to balance finding the proper playing rotation the first two months of the season with also trying to get players like Marcus Lee and Derek Willis into games?
“Here’s the thing that’s happened: If I had a team of juniors and seniors, there’s no question they would be in because I would know the juniors and seniors. I’m still figuring out this group. We’ve changed how we run transition, so all the stuff we practiced for two months, we’re not running it that way anymore. I didn’t like it. It didn’t fit this team, so we changed. If you have a veteran team, you can play nine and 10 guys, and then when you hit the real games, you’re down to eight. But those other games, you play nine, 10, 11, because you’re not doing it to see what these guys are about. You already know,” Calipari said.
“That’s the difference in coaching young teams, and I’m going to say it again: This is the youngest team I’ve ever coached, and I coached all the young teams. This team is—and good kids. I still, people say, ‘How is it coaching so and so?’ I say, ‘This is the greatest group of kids I’ve ever coached.’ Their basketball habits are bad. Their response to situations: bad. But they’re great kids. I mean, these kids—we have not an issue of anything. I mean anything. But their basketball habits stink. They’re just the worst. I’m telling you. But they’re changing. I’m seeing it right before my eyes. If we can get them where we need to have it, it’s on. Right now, it’s still, ‘Let’s see it in games now.’ ”
By LARRY VAUGHT
How confident is UK coach John Calipari that his team can play with the same effort it did the second half without Julius Randle on the court when he is back on the floor Wednesday night against Mississippi State?
“Here’s the one thing I want to tell you: We’ve had games where Andrew wasn’t getting it done, had no pressure on the ball, wasn’t in the emotional state. We go to somebody else and we play better. So he’s done. Now when you see him, hopefully you’re seeing a different player,” Calipari said. “We’ve also won with Aaron on the bench. James Young against Belmont was in Detroit before the game started, so we won without him. Now we’ve won without Julius.
“Now the question is, can Dakari (Johnson) or Marcus (Lee) give us enough that we can win without Willie (Cauley-Stein)? Now what’s important about that is those guys know if you don’t come to play and compete and battle or you’re not quite ready, you’re out and we’ll win without you. That is very important for a team to know and I’ve made it a point to let them know that, whether it’s Julius or Andrew or Aaron or James, we have enough.
“When you talk about the way Dominique (Hawkins) is playing, the way Alex is playing, if Dakari will give us more and Marcus Lee give us more and the way Jarrod goes in and helps our team. The one guy that I gotta get in games and I gotta get him started a little bit is Derek Willis because he’s really been doing good in practice. He and Marcus Lee are the two that we gotta keep engaged because I really think before it’s all said and done they’re going to help us win games.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
With all the hoopla over Kentucky beating Louisville and rising back to No. 15 in the national rankings this week, Kentucky coach John Calipari made it clear on his weekly radio show that he has not forgotten about some players who didn’t play against Louisville.
“Two guys we can’t lose are Marcus Lee and Derek Willis. We have to make sure they are engaged,” said Calipari. “This program needs them and this team needs them.”
Neither freshman played against Louisville. Lee has played 78 minutes in 10 games and Willis 21 minutes in seven games. Lee has 36 points, 21 rebounds and nine blocks while Willis has 14 points and four rebounds.
Senior Jon Hood has also not played since suffering a head injury in practice. Calipari emphasized that Hood is now cleared to play, but he has played just 18 minutes in four games.
“He is practicing great. Really taking on a leadership role,” the UK coach said. “I am really proud of how far he has come. He is the greatest kid that has come through this program, he really is.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
At his press conference today, John Calipari had two really interesting personnel observations.
First, sophomore Alex Poythress, a starter last year and bench player this year who has been up and down.
“Alex was as good as I have ever seen him anywhere at any time in our last practice,” Calipari said. “Not only did he play, but he sustained. Yesterday’s practice he went from good to really good to great. I was like amazed. Hopefully he is starting to get it.”
Second, little-used freshman forward Derek Willis.
“We need to get him in (games). Play as stretch four where he can shoot jumpers. He has got to compete in practice, but he has been great the last couple of practices,” Calipari said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky freshman Derek Willis had 21 points in UK’s Blue-White Game and earned himself an early spot in John Calipari’s playing rotation in the exhibition game against Transylvania Friday night.
Willis was 2-for-3 from 3-point range and had six points in 10 minutes. However, he didn’t get a rebound, steal or assist — or even commit a foul — and left Calipari frustrated with his overall play. The coach was also not happy with freshman Dominique Hawkins, who threw a terrific lob pass to Jon Hood for a dunk in the second half. Hawkins missed his only shot, made two turnovers and had one assist in 12 minutes.
“They didn’t perform as well as they have been in practice and what they did in that scrimmage. When the other team did some things that confused them a little bit, they didn’t perform,” Calipari said. “Derek gave up more than he scored. He scored a couple baskets, but he gave up like 11 points. You can’t give up 11 and score 4. You can give up 11 if you score 20. You can’t score 6 and give up 11. You can’t be in the game.”
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