Cats learning who they are, how good they want to be

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 15, 2012 

  • Friday

    Lafayette at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m.

    TV: Live on Fox Sports South; taped on WKYT-27 at 11:35 p.m.

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: Kentucky 1-1, Lafayette 1-1

    Series: First meeting

With Kentucky closing a deficit to three points with 90 seconds left and the Georgia Dome awash in blue-tinted cheers, John Calipari saw a puzzling sight: Julius Mays guarding Duke's Seth Curry.

Mays is versatile, experienced and, judging by the bandage over his puffy left eye, gritty. But ...

"He was not supposed to be on Curry with a minute and a half to go," Calipari told reporters Thursday. "That was not his man."

So why was Mays on Curry?

"One of the (other UK) guys said, 'You guard him,'" said Calipari before adding with effective understatement, "I think that's my choice to make that call."

Sure enough, Curry drove by Mays, used a pump fake to lift shot-blocking freshman Nerlens Noel off his feet, and then laid in a clutch two points.

"That's all learning who we are," Calipari said of the surprise Mays-Curry matchup. The same could be said of UK's first two games and probably the entire season.

Jon Hood put it well. "Every game in college basketball is a learning experience to some extent," he said. "That's something that will never change."

This Kentucky team's learning experience continues Friday night with the home opener against Lafayette. During his 13-minute news conference previewing the game, Calipari spoke early and often about learning.

One thing not learned was point guard Ryan Harrow's status and what specific ailment kept him out of the Duke game. Calipari said Harrow worked out Wednesday with UK's strength coach, but the coach did not sound optimistic about Harrow playing against Lafayette.

The Cats want Harrow back, but only when he can be an energized floor leader. "We were a little short" against Duke, said Calipari, who lamented playing five guys 32 or more minutes against Duke.

"You've got to look at the kid's health," Calipari said. As if talking to Harrow, the UK coach added, "Get yourself right, and let's go."

While Harrow's status remains in limbo, Calipari described a multi-faceted learning curve for Kentucky:

■ Narrow the focus on how to play the game.

■ "Understand what we are: A post-up team. A pick-and-roll team.

■ Get more production in transition. The Cats need easy baskets. Alex Poythress generated several relatively easy scores against Duke with put-backs. But UK had only nine points in transition.

"You've got to go like you're being chased," Calipari said. "Then you run, and you make plays. We're like, 'Man, that's too hard.'"

To jump-start the break, UK may move its most effective slasher, Archie Goodwin, from point to scoring guard at times, Calipari said.

■ Rotate on defense to limit the opposition's put-backs. Of course, Maryland grabbed 28 offensive rebounds in the opener. Duke had only 11. But Josh Hairston, who played when star big man Mason Plumlee picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, had two during the period when the Blue Devils expanded a 43-37 lead to 58-44 largely without Plumlee.

Calipari applauded Noel's efforts to challenge shots near the basket. What UK players must learn is to be "helper's helper," he said of the proper rotation that has not yet been mastered. "Then be the helper's helper's helper."

■ Create shots for Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer must be his own helper, offensively.

"If he's not getting shots off, then he won't be on the court as much," Calipari said. "(I'm) not mad. I love him. But he better figure out how to get shots off."

Against Duke, Wiltjer took five shots in 32 minutes.

Four days earlier against Maryland, Wiltjer led UK with 19 points. That led to the Southeastern Conference naming him its Player of the Week.

"Kyle's got to step up," Calipari said. In what sounded like apocryphal, the UK coach added, "The Maryland staff asked, 'What happened to him?'"

To which, Calipari supposedly replied, "Well, he didn't play as hard. He didn't compete like he did against Maryland."

Wiltjer must take the initiative, Calipari said. He can't expect a freshman-oriented team to help him get scoring opportunities.

■ Poythress, who grabbed a game-high five offensive rebounds Tuesday night, must really hit the boards. "Go above the rim," Calipari said, "or 'I'm going to stand here and (then) run back on defense.'"

Dive to the floor in all-out exertion or, in Calipari's word, "jog."

"What choice would you make?" the UK coach said. "Depends on how good you want to be."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227Twitter: @JerryTiptonBlog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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