The exceptional quality that Kentucky basketball sees in itself apparently extends this season to the potential for growth, assistant coach Tony Barbee said Monday.
“The scary thing for us, and for our opponents, is we have so much room for improvement,” said Barbee, who substituted for UK head coach John Calipari at the regular day-before-a-game news conference.
Kentucky, which moved up to No. 6 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll this week, plays Texas A&M in its Southeastern Conference home opener Tuesday night. If past is prologue, UK will need improvement. Although still in its early stages, the rivalry has featured four overtime games in the last five meetings.
“Even our team that went 38-0 … it was an overtime game,” Calipari said on an SEC coaches’ teleconference earlier Monday. Actually, it was double-overtime. “And I couldn’t believe we won the game. … They’ve all been hard.”
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Without naming names, Calipari singled out two players who need to improve.
“The biggest word with those two is the word ‘trust,’” Calipari said. “That your teammates have to trust you’re going to do the job you’re supposed to do. And if they can’t trust you, it’s hard to keep you on the floor.”
In recent days, Calipari has spoken of Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis in those terms. Willis said Monday that Calipari had been speaking to Gabriel about trust and improvement.
“He’s been on Wenyen a lot about it in practice …,” Willis said. “I don’t want to say we don’t trust each other. But on the court, I don’t think we communicate efficiently at times. That’s where we get kind of a little discombobulated.”
Barbee pointed out that Gabriel has shown marked improvement in this freshman year.
“Improved night and day since he stepped on campus,” Barbee said. “Wenyen has had his moments.”
Gabriel is a “typical freshman,” who experiences ups and downs, Barbee said.
As for Willis, Calipari said, “His thing is he’s focused so much on defense and rebounding, ‘I can’t make a shot.’”
Willis has made two of nine three-point shots in the last two games.
“I was just kind of in a shooting slump,” Willis said. “I’m in the gym more, just shooting.”
Barbee saluted the improvement freshman big man Bam Adebayo has made.
“His best days of basketball are in front of him,” Barbee said. “I’ve not seen him take a day off since he’s been here. When you get that kind of physical talent, and you have that kind of mental approach to the game that ‘I can always learn and get better,’ it’s scary to think where he’s going to be with years to come.”
Of more immediate concern is A&M sophomore Tyler Davis. He averages 3.9 offensive rebounds, which ranks 14th nationally.
UK fans may remember Davis’ put-back at the buzzer — in overtime, naturally — enabled A&M to beat Kentucky in the regular-season game last season.
When asked why Davis has been so effective, Barbee said, “Obviously, his size is a huge factor.”
Texas A&M lists Davis at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds.
“But he plays one or two moments ahead in the game,” Barbee said. “He’s always angling for position in the post. He’s always angling before the shot is taken to get in position for the offensive rebound.”
Adebayo has similar instincts, Barbee said.
And Davis gets plenty of help from Tonny Trocha-Morelos (6-10, 224), freshman Robert Williams (6-9, 237) and shooter DJ Hogg (6-9, 220).
“One of the most imposing front lines in college basketball,” Barbee said, “not just in our conference.”
Texas A&M at No. 6 Kentucky
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 11-2 (1-0 SEC), Texas A&M 8-4 (0-1)
Series: Kentucky leads 6-3
Last meeting: Kentucky won 82-77 in overtime on March 13, 2016, in the SEC Tournament championship game at Nashville.