Freshman Alex Poythress showed what Kentucky Coach John Calipari judged as "20- to 25-percent" improvement in effort last weekend.
"That's a big jump, man," Calipari said of Poythress' play at Auburn. "Now, we've got to keep him rolling in that direction."
The effort Poythress shows — or doesn't show — has been much discussed this season. Apparently, Calipari has re-adjusted what he seeks from Poythress: from all-out, relentless zeal to much less than 40 minutes of hellacious effort.
"Just three minutes hard," Calipari said. "C'mon. C'mon. C'mon. And that's what we're trying to do right now."
Calipari reminded reporters that Poythress was a freshman. And a productive freshman. He's second on the team in scoring (13.1 ppg), rebounding (6.4 rpg), free-throw attempts (78) and, as Calipari said, he's "doing some pretty good stuff."
But more is expected.
At Auburn, Poythress missed two put-back layups. Layups? On the second, Calipari reacted by putting his hands to his head as if to gesture disbelief. Later, Poythress dunked a put-back, and Calipari raised his palms up as if to say why hadn't you done that before.
When asked Monday why Poythress didn't slam home the first two put-backs, Calipari said with a tone of resignation, "It's just his mentality right now. What we're trying to change. How he views things."
Calipari did not commit to Willie Cauley-Stein's return at Alabama. The 7-footer had what UK described as a "minor procedure" on his left knee last week. He missed the game at Auburn.
Calipari suggested Cauley-Stein's absence instilled a sense of urgency. UK's other half of a Twin Towers, Nerlens Noel, said he felt a greater sense of responsibility.
"I think there's a lot more responsibility," he said. "I'm making sure I'm staying in the game."
Calipari noted wryly that Noel need not get in foul trouble, as he did at Auburn.
"Yeah, I know we can't afford that," Noel said.
Against Auburn's 2-3 zone, Kyle Wiltjer scored and passed for baskets from the elbow area. Alabama will not play the same type of zone, Calipari said. Openings against an Alabama zone would be more likely from the corners, the UK coach said.
"Kyle's effort level has been off the charts," Calipari said of Wiltjer's back-to-back 17-point games last week. The UK coach also noted Wiltjer's increased assertiveness.
Last week, Calipari dismissed the likelihood of a blowout victory this season. Then UK beat Auburn by 22.
"He obviously yells less when we're up by 20," Noel said.
When asked if this was good, Noel smiled and said, "Yeah, it is a good feeling not having him yell at some player when we're up by that much. We should have a 20- or 30-point lead a lot more often."More grounded
Noel agreed with the observation that he's tamed the impulse to leave his feet so often for shot-block chances.
"It was pretty tough," he said of the change. "You want to block everything there is to block. I was really anxious at the beginning of the season. I've come to be more relaxed on defense, just anticipating things better."
Jarrod Polson acknowledged his surprise that just how open the lane became when he drove to a layup late in the second half against Auburn.
"Weird," he said. "I wish I had dunked it, but it was too late for that."
When a reporter playfully suggested he dunk when the situation occurs again, Polson smiled and said, "Next one, definitely."
Heralded freshman Devonta Pollard is averaging 5.7 points and 3.3 rebounds for Alabama. Grant noted the learning curve for any freshman. "No substitution for experience," the Alabama coach said earlier this month. "That's what we keep telling him."
SEC opponents have shot a healthy 47.2 percent against Alabama. ... Grant noted how UK has five players averaging double-digit points. "Which is very impressive," he said. ... Brad Nessler, Jimmy Dykes and Shannon Spake will call the game for ESPN.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com