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By LARRY VAUGHT
CHICAGO — Kentucky commit Dakari Johnson compares his game to that of Philadelphia 76ers center Andrew Bynum because of his strength, rebounding and low-post scoring prowess. He averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shot per game for Montverde Academy in Florida this season. He’s a New York native but also lived in Lexington for a brief time in junior high before his family moved to New Jersey.
He’s playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game here Wednesday night — one of at least six future Cats in the game on ESPN — and spent time after practice Tuesday talking about UK, his play, future teammates and even ping pong.
Question: How excited are you about coming to Kentucky as part of the all-time highest ranked recruiting class?
Johnson: “It is great. I have been with my future teammates all week, and it’s real exciting. I wanted to go play with all the great players and I knew if I went to Kentucky that nothing would be handed to me. They wouldn’t just give me a starting position. I will have to work for it.”
Question: How big an advantage could it be for six of you to play together in all-star games and start adjusting to the way each other plays like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer did two years ago?
Johnson: “It could be huge. We are getting used to each other right now and it looks like we are clicking so far. It could give us an advantage.”
Question: Are the other future Wildcats — Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee and James Young — better than you even expected?
Johnson: “I have known them for AAU events, so I know they are all great players and that will make me better as a player.”
Question: Do people normally tell you that you are bigger than they thought but that you also run the court better than they expected?
Johnson: “I hear that a lot. I am not really a highlight guy and fly through the air and dunk on people. I just play the game that I love and play it well.”
Question: What is your reaction to knowing that center Willie Cauley-Stein is coming back for a second season at UK?
Johnson: “It is great. I think he helps me as a player. We are two different players. He is more athletic than me and I am more the non-athletic guy and more skilled. But he is a real good player. I think we will complement each other well. In practice we are going to have to have battles and that will make me a better player.”
Question: What if that means more time on the bench for you?
Johnson: “It doesn’t matter to me. I am just all about winning.”
Question: When you lived in Lexington, did you dream of playing for Kentucky and did you pay much attention to UK basketball then?
Johnson: “I was too young to think about it. As I got better, I always knew Kentucky was the right fit for me. I knew Kentucky basketball was a big deal when I was young. It was like a pro team. I went to a lot of games at Kentucky. I like that atmosphere. It puts a lot of pressure on you, but that’s what I want because pressure makes me a better player.”
Question: How hard was coach Kevin Boyle on you the year you sat out as a transfer from New Jersey to Montverde Academy in Florida?
Johnson: “He was really hard at first. I was like really mad that I wouldn’t be able to play. I just worked hard and got where I am right now. I lost about 25 or 30 pounds. I worked hard every single day just for this moment to be a McDonald’s All-American. He’s one of the best high school coaches in America. What is better than to learn from him? We went down there for a visit and the school is just a great school. It is somewhere you can go and get your studies together and really prepare for college.”
Question: Do you ever talk to former UK star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, your former teammate under Boyle in New Jersey?
Johnson: “I talk to him ever once in a while. He’s busy with the NBA, but he hits me up and texts me or calls me. He tells me when he was there (Kentucky) it was hard on him and he had a lot of pressure and I will have to work. He did try, though, to influence me a little bit to go there. He said that he always knew that is where I was going to go or I didn’t he was going to make me.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
The first time Kevin Boyle saw Dakari Johnson was the summer of the player’s eighth-grade year when his family had left Kentucky and was looking for a new school for him. Boyle was the successful coach at Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick — he coached former UK standout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — and Johnson and his family had heard good things about Boyle.
“They just wanted to meet the coach,” said Boyle. “He was always a polite kid. At that age, he was a little bit lazy and out of shape. He was carrying too much weight.”
But the coach and player formed a relationship that continues today. That’s why when Boyle left St. Patrick after Kidd-Gilchrist’s final season to become the head coach at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, Johnson and his family made the move from New Jersey to follow him even though that meant Johnson was ineligible to play as a sophomore. He played this year and reclassified from a junior to senior so he can sign with UK next month as part of the recruiting class being hailed as the nation’s all-time best.
Boyle had coached future NBA players like Sam Dalembert, Al Harrington and Kyrie Irving as well as other standouts like Shaheen Holloway (Seton Hall), Corey Fisher (Villanova) and Dexter Strickland (North Carolina). Now Kentucky is hoping Johnson is another of the former stars Boyle will have coached .
“He was the ESPN Freshman of the Year but he was about 40 pounds over weight that year,” Boyle said. “He knew he had to sit out when he transferred here because of a rule Florida has, but he knew the value of us being together.”
Boyle put him on a P90X® workout program of muscle-pumping exercises designed to transform his body when he couldn’t play last year.
“He worked hard to get ripped and in condition. He lost 45 to 50 pounds to tighten up his body,” Boyle said. “This year the school hired a professional strength coach and he is just in terrific shape compared to 18 to 24 months ago. He’s just a great kid. He’s well liked by teachers and the community. He’s not just athletic. He’s well rounded. He’s doing well academically. He is ready for the next level and new challenges. We are excited he is going to Kentucky. We know John Calipari is an excellent coach and that is a great school and environment for basketball.”
Boyle says Johnson is similar to Kidd-Gilchrist in that both “like being part of a team and don’t look for individual attention” at any time.
“Dakari has a different personality, but both are genuine, nice kids. Very humble,” Boyle said. “Forget athletics. They are just good people. It’s refreshing to see a kid with all the notoriety that Michael has had since a very young age never change. He loved his experience at UK and misses that.
“Both Michael and Dakari could have gone for 25 (points) and 25 (rebounds) every game at other schools. But they see the bigger picture of a system that makes them accountable for basketball and school, a system that makes sure they are a good person and learn to play with other good players like they would in college and if good enough, the NBA. Both moms recognized the value of being in a disciplined program that understood the big picture.”
Johnson is not as advanced skill-wise as Kidd-Gilchrist, but he was chose for the Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-American Game. He played on Team USA last summer.
“He has gotten a lot better,” Boyle said. “Like most kids his age, he’s a work in progress. He is a very good passer out of the post. He is starting to develop a jump hook. He can set a screen and hit a 15- to 16-foot shot. He’s just now getting comfortable utilizing all that in games. He’s not a great jumper or athlete. He is an outstanding player, but it is critical for him to utilize his body mass and size for rebounding and contact so he gets separation to shoot. Another way to get his offense is to set that screen and hit that 15-footer. He’s really worked hard in those area. That will show more next year when he can’t get to the basket as easy.”
Artist Jason Robichau of Phoenix says he’s a huge college basketball fan who cannot watch enough of March Madness each year. That led him to start three years ago to putting together a painting of the national championship team.
His newest print is, “The Pursuit of Gr8ness,” in honor of Kentucky’s 2012 national championship team.
“I just want to try and commemorat the national champion each year,” said Robichau. “I decided to do a painting of the team’s run to the national title and for Kentucky it just seemed right to pick the eight primary players who played significant time and put them around (John) Calipari to go with the eight national titles.”
Kentucky players Darius Miller, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Kyle Wiltjer, Doron Lamb and Eloy Vargas are shown with Calipari as he holds up the national championship trophy.
“I compiled various images to use in the background, too,” Robichau. “I tried to get every player on the team in the background, too. They are all there.”
The background includes Davis blocking Cody Zeller’s shot, Kidd-Gilchrist scoring against Baylor and the team’s visit to the White House.
“It takes so long to do these because I want them to be something fans want to keep around. But I plan to keep doing this every year,” he said. “It is kind of hard to get the word out, especially when you don’t live in the area where the team is from. However, once word gets out a lot of fans buy it and that’s why I try to make sure every player on the team is included.
Go to http://www.jasonrobichau.com/pursuit-of-gr8ness-lithograph for more information or contact Robichau at email@example.com. The limited edition lithograph prints are normally $50 but can be purchased now for $25.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s fabulous 2013 recruiting class got even better Saturday night when Dakari Johnson, the top-ranked center in the 2013 class, gave his verbal commitment to the Wildcats. He’s the fifth top 20 recruit in Kentucky’s 2013 class.
“They were just honest people from the get-go,” Johnson said during his announcement on ESPN. “They told me that this wasn’t the place to come if I were selfish, if I wanted the ball all the time or if I didn’t want to work hard. I want to work hard, I want to get pushed. I want that pressure on me because that makes me a better player.”
The 6-10, 250-pound Johnson, who briefly played at Sayre High School in Lexington, is a solid scorer inside who calls himself a “hard worker” on the court.
“A presence in the post on the defensive end and the offensive end. I’m a great teammate, too. … I’m a good person on and off the court,” Johnson, a consensus top 15 recruit, said when asked to describe himself.Kentucky coach John Calipari now has commitments from Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, James Young,Marcus Lee and Derek Willis (according to Rivals.com). All but Willis are top 20 recruits and the Harrisons and Young are all top 10.And don’t forget that Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle, the top two ranked players in the 2013 class, still are high on UK.
Johnson said he wasn’t worried about current UK centers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein do about the NBA draft after this season.
“I talked to Coach Cal and it wouldn’t matter to me,” Johnson told SportsNet New York last week. “Even if they stayed, they would push me harder in practice and I would just be better developed going against those guys every day.”
Johnson played one year with former UK standout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a freshman at St. Patrick High in New Jersey, and the two players still talk. He also considers Young a “good friend” who has been encouraging him to commit to UK.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl thought Kentucky’s home-court win streak would end this year and said so in October. Yet the current ESPN college basketball analyst thought it would likely be Florida or Missouri, not Baylor, that gave UK coach John Calipari his first Rupp Arena loss.
“I actually thought Kentucky might even lose twice. I just didn’t think it would happen before SEC play started. Baylor was talented enough to pull it off, but I was still shocked it did.”
Pearl also projected UK to finish third behind Florida and Missouri in this year’s Southeastern Conference race. Conference play starts this week and Pearl says UK is “about where I expected them” to be and still feels Florida will win the league.
“I don’t want to sound like … because we guess all the time and don’t know it all .. but I felt some factor would make Kentucky take a step back this year,” Pearl said. “There’s no Darius Miller. No Terrence Jones. No Doron Lamb. I played (coached) against those guys. I know how tough Miller was. He killed Tennessee. He gave it to us not just with offense, but with defense and toughness. Lamb was a clutch shooter. Every time Anthony Davis went to block a shot, Terrence got the backside rebound or Calipari took him out.
“I enjoyed that Kentucky team last year as much as any team I have watched play period. They were that much fun. I enjoyed them as much as any team I have ever seen in college basketball. I knew it was a rare team and I knew there would be a lot of change with this year’s team.”
Photos by Victoria Graff, and property of Schurz Communications, Inc., and vaughtsviews.com. All rights reserved; images may not be reprinted in print or online without permission of the owners. Reprinted images must be attributed to vaughtsviews.com and linked to the original site.
By LARRY VAUGHT
When Kentucky players came out for their pregame shootaround Wednesday before playing Eastern Michigan, there was a familiar face with them — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
He had a night off from playing with the Charlotte Bobcats and came back to see UK play for the first time since he helped the Wildcats win the national title last year and was the second overall pick in the draft.
He joked with UK assistant coaches and hugged various players as they came over to see him. He sat on the bench for most of the pregame warmups and then was on the front row to watch the game.
“Yeah, he surprised us. He’s such a great kid,” UK coach John Calipari said after the 90-38 win. ” He knew that there was a plane coming from Charlotte. He just said, “Hey, can I jump on it?” And he came in, and they beat Chicago. They practiced today and he comes in to watch the guys play.”
Calipari joked that Kidd-Gilchrist was not happy to see the renovated locker rooms at Rupp Arena.
“He was really, really angry when he saw the locker room. He was smoking. He walked in my office, and he said, this is BS. What we had last year. Look at this. So he did it in fun, but he was like — but it was good to see him,” Calipari said.
Kentucky fans gave him a standing ovation when he was escorted to midcourt by two cheerleaders to do the “Y” in a traditional Kentucky cheer.
Surprise: Calipari has a surprise planned for UK fans today.
“So what I’ll do is tomorrow you’re going to have a good idea of what we’ve done that is unique, out of the box. We’re a non‑traditional program. We’re doing things that we have to do that have never been done, based on the fact of what we’re doing with young guys. We’ve got to try different things. So it will be out tomorrow sometime,” Calipari said. “I’m basically doing it for the Big Blue Nation to see, but since I told all you in the media, I’m telling you now it will be out tomorrow.”
He indicated his surprise would be posted on his website at www.coachcal.com.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Is there a chance that this Kentucky basketball team simply is not tough enough overall to be a Final Four contender?
“It’s hard to say if a team is soft as a unit,” said FOX Sports college basketball analyst Larry Conley. “I think they have guys that play with skills. Their skills actually are pretty solid. Are they mean and nasty? No, as a team they are not but that does not mean they can not go out and win games. I’ve seen a lot of teams do that.
“It’s always nice to have one or two guys like that (mean and nasty) to whip a team into shape to make the team better. They just don’t have anybody like that. You can’t make people something they are not. They are what they are. They have ability. John (Calipari) and his staff knew what they were getting when they signed these players and they have gotten better from the first exhibition game until now. But they are not an overly physical team at this point.”
That amen you hear likely could be coming from Kentucky coach John Calipari. His teams normally are physically and mentally tough. He’s had players like Patrick Patterson, Demarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Deandre Liggins at UK known for their physical toughness. He’s had others like Brandon Knight, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Anthony Davis that were mentally tough. But the coach has openly worried about this team.
“The tape doesn’t lie. You watch a little bit of this tape, and you’ll see,” Calipari said last week after UK beat Lipscomb. “Their big guy threw our big guys around. Then you talk about the guards at Mississippi. Wait till you see their big guys. The big guys at Tennessee, wait until you see their big guys. Their players are throwing us around is what happened.
“Just be more physical. You’ve got to bend over. You can’t stand straight up and down. You can’t accept that he’s going to beat you to the spot. All those things right now throughout their careers have been acceptable. It’s not anymore. Well, we’re trying to change habits that they’ve developed over a period of time.”
Conley said it’s also difficult to gauge UK’s toughness because they have played many “lambs for slaughter” this season.
“Maryland was okay, Duke is very good, Baylor is okay and Notre Dame is okay,” Conley said. “Now Louisville is really going to be a test (Dec. 29). I think Kentucky fans are frustrated with this team. Coming off a national championship year with a team that had tough guys and maybe better skill sets, it’s hard to be on this team.
“But look at the numbers. They are getting better. They defended much better the other night than they have all year. This is a not a team you are going to look at and say they do this really well, but they can do enough well to be a really good team. How good we won’t really know until the Louisville game and that’s when a lot of questions will get answered.”
What about Southeastern Conference play? Can Kentucky win a third SEC title in four years under Calipari?
“I had them and Florida at the top at the beginning of the year. Nothing has changed for me except that Missouri might be a little better than I thought,” Conley said “Tennessee getting (injured) Jeronne Maymon back could be the difference in winning or losing give games. If he is back, they will be hard to beat again. Those are the four best teams. Alabama has had a couple of key injuries. I am not sure if they can stay up there.
“The best darkhorse team is Ole Miss. (Marshall) Henderson out of junior college is averaging shooting 12 3’s a game. There are teams that don’t take that many. They are tough kids, too. They have about four kids that will take you to the woodshed. Texas A&M is good but not great. I am a little surprised at LSU but I know their talent and do not seeing them winning the league or Johnny Jones should get the best coaching job of the year.”
Since Kentucky has already lost three games and will be a decided underdog at Louisville, could there be a scenario where UK could find itself in danger of not making the NCAA Tournament?
“I could not see Kentucky not getting in the NCAA,” Conley said. “I still think they will win 22 to 26 games.
“The big thing right now is that they just don’t have that fire in their belly. It’s hard to put your finger on. I have seen Alex Poythress do things where you go, ‘Wow. Why doesn’t he do that every game?’ That lack of consistency is what frustrates John and all Kentucky fans. But they may get it one game and all of sudden they beat a really good team and say we are pretty good and just take off. I have seen it happen before and maybe it will happen to Kentucky this year.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
How good is Kentucky going to be this year? I’m not even sure Kentucky coach John Calipari can answer that question right now going into Saturday’s game with Lipscomb.
In fact, Calipari all but admitted as much last week following his team’s win over Portland.
“I’m just telling you we have a long way to go. My question to my team: There’s eight or 10 teams that are better than all the rest of the teams in the country. Do you want to be one of those eight or 10 teams? What are you willing to do to be one of those eight or 10 teams? Or you don’t want to be? Too hard. I don’t want to be one of those eight or 10,” Calipari said. “You tell me we have to go three a days to be top 50, hope we make the NCAA tournament. If we’re in the NIT, it’s a good run to New York. We can be that team, too. I mean, which team do you want to be?
“I’m looking at everybody in the country saying we’re probably 50 to 100 right now, but we could be top 10, top 8. Those eight are the only ones that truly have a chance to win the whole thing. Do you want to be those or not? That was my challenge to them. Are you fearful you’re not good enough right now? Are you like Derrick Rose, who when I had him: ‘I just don’t think I’m good enough, I have to work harder, spend more time.’ Or Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist), Brandon Knight, guys that understood, I’m not good enough, I’ve got to get better.
“I’m working on as much mental toughness and the mentality this team has. It’s not all their fault. We played Maryland and Duke to start off. We all think everything’s good because we only lost to Duke by three. It was a three point game, so we’re good. We weren’t right. I knew we weren’t right. That falls on me. I’m trying to correct the mistakes I made and make sure that we get these guys after it.”
Calipari encouraged his team to have a second team meeting to figure out what the players wanted.
Q. Did you give your guys a chance to answer when you asked them about where they wanted to be?
“Come back and tell me. If you don’t, don’t let me go nuts by myself. Just tell me: ‘We’re good, cool down, we’ll jog it up the court, help each other when we feel like it, have some big 3′s sometimes.’ Just let me know,” Calipari said.
“As I say this jokingly to you and sarcastically, I like my team and I like our players. What are they choosing to do? Did you see the fans gave Kyle Wiltjer a great ovation? Can you tell me what that was for? Tell me why they did it. He rebounded a couple balls. You know he didn’t have a rebound in the first half.
“Our fans will cheer him. He only had three rebounds. Acted like he had 12. But he got three in traffic that they haven’t seen in eight games. Well, that’s what we’ve been doing in practice. There were loose balls he didn’t get, he had to sit down, you’re not playing. Loose balls that Ryan (Harrow) didn’t get, you’re sitting down, you’re not playing. I’m holding them accountable.
“I grabbed a couple of them after. It’s hard, isn’t it? Hard trying to be special. Easy being mediocre. It is really hard to try to be special. I can help you or you can say, I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I don’t. I never prepared anybody. I don’t know. Or you can listen to what I’m saying and do it.
“I’m not afraid to tell the media what I’ve said. I like our fans to watch and say, he is exhausted, my gosh, look at him, so these guys understand. It’s hard playing here and it’s hard playing for me. You don’t come here unless you want to be special. Don’t do it. Don’t torture you or me.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
From the day he arrived on campus in August, Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel has continued to work on basically the same things.
“Just continuing to do what I do now. Working on my skill set 15 feet in and staying in the weight room to get stronger and put on good weight.,” said Noel. “Those are the things it will take for me to help this team all I can.”
Noel was the nation’s top-ranked player in the 2012 recruiting class. He arrived on campus about two months after UK’s other freshmen — Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein — to finish necessary work to graduate after reclassifying from the 2013 recruiting year to 2012.
He says assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Orlando Antigua have not let him even think about not pushing himself.
“They really push you to get to where you want to be. They are great, and people you can look up to and talk to whenever you want to speak about something. I appreciate them,” Noel said.
Same with his teammates.
“We all had prior relationships before coming here, and I always had a good vibe since I got here that we have a close-knit group. We have all come a long way and have been our own brother’s keeper,” Noel said.
He was expecting Kentucky fans to be a bit zany, but admits he did underestimate the fans.
“A lot more (fan interest) than what I have experienced in the past. It is special to be here. It is a big opportunity, but you have to seize it and bring it every day,” Noel said. “Some fans are crazy, but mainly they just have a love for the game. Just watching us play is special for them, and you have to love that.”
Noel likes the daily competition with Cauley-Stein, who outplayed him in last week’s Blue-White Game when Noel injured his back early in the scrimmage.
“Willie has come a long way with himself, and I think that will be a great duo. Not too many shots would get up in the paint. The season should be real fun. Whatever coach Cal (Calipari) decides to do, and whoever he decides to put in, we will just go out there and try to ball,” Noel said.
Cauley-Stein is just as glad to be pushed by Noel — one reason he had no problem when Noel signed with the Cats about six months after he had picked the Cats.
“A lot of my friends from back home asked me if I was worried that I wouldn’t get as much playing time. Honestly, that didn’t go through my head,” Cauley-Stein said. “You care to some sense, but if we are winning, I don’t care. If you win, you win, and it doesn’t matter how many minutes you get. It didn’t really bother me that much. It was kind of more like a challenge. I was really low key and nobody really knew about me. Going with the number one recruit in the country and having to play against him every day builds your confidence.”
Noel doesn’t want to think or act like the top-ranked recruit. Instead, his focus is on a national title, not going pro. Sounds similar to the same things Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said last year before going one-two in the draft.
“Winning a title is something I have definitely dreamed about. Just being at the college level and growing up watching this game and having a passion for it, I really want to win a title more than anything,” Noel said. “Other than that, I am mainly focused on getting better and staying on the books. This is just a regular school where you are going to do regular things and where you come to get better every day. The NBA is not something you worry about.”