High post or low, back to the basket or facing the rim, the most effective way of using freshman Anthony Davis is not the top priority, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said Tuesday.
"He's just got to get toughness, right now," Calipari said. "Until he does that, it doesn't matter what we do."
Coming off what Calipari has called "mud-wrestling" competitions in two of the last three games, and the coach suggesting more of the same against Radford on Wednesday, toughness sounded like Job One for all the Cats. Even freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, an energy source for UK this early season, was all but loitering early against ODU, Calipari said. "The first three minutes, Michael Gilchrist wasn't there," the UK coach said.
At 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, the long and lean Davis does not seem well built for mud-wrestling or physical basketball. Not necessarily, Calipari said.
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"He's got to bend," the UK coach said. "It's not hard to bend over. Standing straight up, you have no leverage. Most guys are not strong from the waist up. They're strong from the waist down. Bend those knees."
Calipari said much the same thing in the pre-season.
Davis, UK's second-leading scorer (12.8 ppg) and rebounder (7.8 rpg), noted that — like his teammates — he has much improving to do. Old Dominion's Chris Cooper drove home the point with 17 points and 12 rebounds against UK on Sunday. He joined Thomas Robinson of Kansas (11 points, 12 rebounds) as big men who posted double-doubles against Kentucky in the last week.
"Just shows I've got to get more physical," Davis said.
Davis echoed Calipari's words about how he can transform himself into a more physically imposing presence.
"Just staying low," he said. "That's all it is. The lower you are, the stronger you are."
Davis acknowledged that the looming game against North Carolina's tall timber on Dec. 3 re-emphasized Calipari's point about toughness.
"Most definitely," he said. "I'm getting extra work in (after practice). It's going to be a physical game."
After the ODU game, Davis noted that he must make the transition from high school perimeter player to college presence around the basket. Aside from lob passes he dunks, the big man from Chicago has not yet become a low-post scorer. Calipari said in the pre-season that Davis would not be what former Marquette coach Al McGuire liked to call an aircraft carrier.
"I think I've still got a long way to go," Davis said of his offensive game. "In our offense, it's really not designed for 'bigs' to get the ball on the perimeter."
That may change as "Coach Cal gets us prepared to show what I actually can do," he added.
Davis admitted his surprise at the physical nature of college basketball. "I knew the game would be physical," he said. "But not that physical."
He began getting the message in the first formal UK practice when trying to guard All-America candidate Terrence Jones.
"He'd go straight to the basket every time," Davis said. "'Oh yeah, it's going to be a long season.' "
Going straight to the basket? That's what Calipari said he'd prize when a UK player catches the ball in the foul line area. But to get there requires courage and, yes, toughness.
To drive is to "get bumped and grabbed and held," the UK coach said. "The easiest thing you can do is catch and shoot that bad boy before anybody comes near me."
Davis must be taught how to post up and call for the ball while holding off the defender, Calipari said.
Toughness is not a quality desired only for big men. Calipari noted how sophomore Jarrod Polson showed more of a willingness to mix it up to get loose balls and long rebounds than star freshman Marquis Teague.
"Do I really want to go in there?" Calipari suggested the guards may think. "I may get hit in the eye in there. That's all what we're trying to learn."
Meanwhile, Calipari took the long view and reminded reporters that Kentucky must aim for March as the time to maximize its potential. He said the trip there will be a series of ups and downs rather than a long, steady incline.
"Four or five or six games from now, somebody will ask, 'Do you think you took a step back?' " the UK coach predicted. "Every once in a while, you do that."
Kentucky's fourth game from now is, uh, North Carolina.