John Calipari: Praise for Alex Poythress is deserved

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 12, 2014 

After Kentucky's victory at Vanderbilt, Coach John Calipari continued to gush about Alex Poythress' improvement this season. "Best he ever played," Calipari said in echoing what has become a familiar refrain regarding Poythress this season.

Vandy guard Kyle Fuller seemed less than bowled over by Poythress' performance. When asked about UK's sophomore forward, he mentioned offensive rebounding before adding, "That's all I remember from him."

Poythress had two offensive rebounds against the Commodores. He was productive (nine points, four rebounds in 19 minutes), but best-ever performance?

More than once this season, Calipari has volunteered praise for Poythress in response to media questions about other players.

"He doesn't believe in himself as much as we do," Calipari said of Poythress.

After saying that a coach must balance boosting a player's self-esteem with constructive criticism, Calipari denied that he was merely blowing positive smoke about Poythress.

"You know me well enough," he said. "If a guy stinks, I'm going to say he stinks."

In the same Memorial Gym setting a year earlier, Calipari candidly talked about Kyle Wiltjer's poor defense.

Calipari expressed pride in Poythress' recent uptick in production: 8.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in the past five games. "What we're all about," the UK coach said. "It's about guys like Alex making that climb and becoming the player they can become. Knowing we push you, but giving you room to go do your thing."

Even in those most recent five games, Poythress isn't quite matching his averages as a freshman: 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds. But in that span, he has played fewer minutes: 20.8 minutes as opposed to last season's 25.8.

"I told him, 'You're as good as anybody in the gym,'" Calipari after Poythress had a quiet first half at Vandy (no points, two rebounds). "'Why weren't you playing that way?' What's holding him back? He is. He's holding himself back."

UK players and coaches have repeatedly lauded Poythress' potential, which might become more than a reaching-a-personal-potential issue should Julius Randle become incapacitated by cramping.

Poythress lessened the impact of Randle's cramps at Vandy. And after Randle sat out most of the second half against Louisville because of cramps, Poythress helped fill the void with seven points and five rebounds.

"When he was in the game, he gave us one more rebounder, one more defender, one more guy guarding the pick and roll," Calipari said after that game. "I'd like him to take a couple more jumpers. ... I really believe he's going to get better and better."

Teammate James Young mentioned Poythress becoming assertive. "Alex has really begun stepping up," he said. "In practice, he always goes the hardest. His heart rate is always up the most. He just keeps working harder and harder, and it showed today. (Why?) Honestly, it think it's his determination to win."

Before Kentucky began Southeastern Conference play against Mississippi State last week, Calipari gushed about Poythress in practice. "He is absolutely, like, Whoa!" the UK coach said. "I never seen him play like this. Ever."

As if on cue, Poythress had a season-high 12 points in the victory over Mississippi State.

"His confidence level should be at an all-time high," assistant coach John Robic said after the game, "and I really think we're seeing that. He's bringing energy doing things. Now, keep doing those things."

'Just good guys'

Willie Cauley-Stein suggested UK made a statement at Vandy.

"The word is we're not a good team and we've got selfish guys," he said before adding that the Cats had been practicing with increasing unity. "In the game, it showed. We really have each other's back. ... and we're really just good guys."

'Physicality'

Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings on UK: "To me, they're more physical than athletic. And they really use the physicality well."

Stallings then cautioned media types not to infer criticism into that observation. "It's clean physicality," he said. "It's playing hard. There's not one thing that's dirty-cheap. Nothing."

Circle the wagons

Arkansas, which is off to its first 0-2 SEC start since 2009, figures to circle the wagons against Kentucky on Tuesday.

Florida snapped the Hogs' 23-game home winning streak on Saturday. Arkansas is 2-19 in games played on the opponents' court in Mike Anderson's three seasons as coach.

After playing UK, Arkansas goes to Georgia and Tennessee.

Arkansas plans a "white out" for the game against Kentucky. The first 300 students who enter Bud Walton Arena will receive a white rally towel.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: UKbasketball.bloginky.com.

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