Contrary to fan musings on the Internet, Kentucky freshman Alex Poythress cares.
"Oh yeah, Alex cares," teammate Ryan Harrow said Monday. "He gets mad when Coach (John Calipari) talks to him. He gets mad when we're talking to him. So he cares."
Of Poythress's gentlemanly, almost desultory bearing on the court, Harrow said, "That's just his demeanor. He's just a 'chill guy.' So he's not going to show too much emotion."
Calipari, a shrill guy when needed, predicted fans will soon see a more engaged Poythress. If not Wednesday night against Eastern Michigan, then surely in UK's Southeastern Conference opener at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10, Poythress's passion will be obvious.
"You'll say, 'Wow, is he playing different!'" Calipari said.
The UK coach rested this before-and-after prediction on the one-on-one workouts he began conducting with Poythress on Sunday. The once-a-day-sessions are designed to last 27 minutes. If Poythress lapses, he must repeat the drill. Sunday's session lasted 38 minutes. Monday's went 27 minutes.
"He was way better today than yesterday," Calipari said. "It wasn't close. Was he all the way there? No."
Calipari said he conducted similar sessions when he coached the New Jersey Nets. Before returning to game action, injured players had to prove their full recovery in one-on-one workouts.
Earlier this season, Calipari began working individually with Harrow (learning toughness as a point guard?). Now, Archie Goodwin (control and decision making in the open court?) and Kyle Wiltjer (toughness among other big men?) have joined Poythress in the extra sessions.
"Things pertinent to how he plays," Calipari said of the drills for Poythress. The back-to-basics drills involve where on the court Poythress catches the ball, keeping his head up, catching the ball with two hands and staying down in a defensive stance.
"How about this novel idea: sprint the floor," Calipari said facetiously.
"You can't break down when you just feel you're tired. Anytime he breaks down, he has to go again."
Between drills, Poythress must make at least four of five free throws. Two or more misses mean sprints. In theory, Poythress will equate misses or lapses with sprints. Since he dislikes running, he will limit lapses.
Harrow vouched for the effectiveness of the sessions. "Gave me more confidence," he said.
The sessions bring out the better angels of Calipari's nature. When asked to describe the UK coach's mood in the sessions, Harrow said, "Actually, really encouraging. He says how good you're doing. And if you make a mistake, he'll try to correct it for you. But he's telling you how good it looks when you do it and how it's going to work in a game."
Earlier this season, Harrow spoke of the adjustment to Calipari's more caustic tone in team practices.
Poythress, too, must learn how to find the instruction in Calipari's venting, Harrow said.
"Listen to what he says instead of how he says it," Harrow said. "... The screaming and stuff, it kind of gets to you. You didn't have anybody screaming at you during high school. In high school and AAU, you were so good, you could basically do what you wanted. So no coach is going to scream at you.
"When a coach screams at you now, he means business. He'll actually take you out. He'll actually make a fool of you."
Poythress did not look foolish at Louisville on Saturday, but for the first time this season he did not start. He played a season-low 15 minutes. That marked the third straight game (and fourth time in the last five) that his playing time diminished.
But that downward trend should not be read as indifference, his mother said.
"He's always been ... calm and cool under pressure," Regina Poythress said. "I don't want people to get that misunderstood. He's not passive."
Nor is he lazy, she said.
"If Alex was not driven, he wouldn't have made straight A's in high school while I was working," Regina Poythress said. "... Because he's not loud and boisterous doesn't mean he's not capable of coming with it."
Anyone who saw the put-back dunks against Duke knows Poythress is capable.
"Alex could be the best player in college basketball," Harrow said. "Because he has the physical attributes. He's skilled. And he can just be a beast. But, you know, he's holding himself back. ...
"It's just a mental thing with him. He has to believe it. We can't believe it for him."