As Kentucky Coach John Calipari recalled, Julius Mays shook his teammates like a blind pick by supplying a heart-felt answer to his own simple question: What makes you and drives you?
"He came back and said, 'I'm my mother's only son and I refuse to fail,'" Calipari said Tuesday in quoting Mays. "Whoa! These guys were kind of, like, what?!"
Calipari related the moment as a way to explain the leadership Mays has shown this latest freshman-dependent Kentucky team.
"Thank goodness he's on this team because holding it together is the job he's done," Calipari said.
Never miss a local story.
Mays came to Kentucky as a graduate student last summer. UK marked his third stop as a college player after beginning at North Carolina State and transferring to Wright State.
The new guy won over his teammates.
"Through his playing, really," teammate Jarrod Polson said. "If he came in here and not played hard and stuff like that, then we're going to be, like, no, we're not going to listen to you."
Even if he didn't shoot particularly well, Mays played hard as evidenced by his minutes in some of Kentucky's biggest games: 37 against Duke, 35 against Notre Dame and Louisville, 39 at Tennessee, and 83 last week (39 against Vanderbilt and 44 against Missouri).
"He stepped up in big games," Polson said, "and that's what we really need. We kind of look up to him and listen to him when he has something to say."
Freshman Alex Poythress echoed the sentiment after Mays scored 24 points against Missouri.
"Julius was incredible," Poythress said. "We look for him for advice on and off the court. He's always there to help us when we're in need. We look to him for guidance if we're in a pickle or just confused. He always has the right answer."
One moment in the Missouri game epitomized Mays' leadership. Calipari was about to correct point guard Ryan Harrow when Mays interceded.
"I knew what he was about to say, and I knew he was about to get on him," Mays said. "It was a crucial part of the game and we didn't need to lose Ryan. We needed Ryan. So I stopped Coach and I told him, 'I got him.' So I got on Ryan and he accepted the coaching from me and we moved on.
"It's always important for you to take the criticism from your teammates and not put your head down. Sometimes it's tougher from the coach, because he might not say it how you want it. But, coming from the teammates, I think it means more."
Polson noted the difference in a correction coming from a teammate rather than a coach.
"He's just out there with us," Polson said. "Not like he's just standing at the bench just yelling at us. He's out there with us. He's playing with us. ... So you know what's going on."
Not that Polson meant that Calipari is merely venting from the bench.
"No, no, no," Polson said. "He definitely needs to yell at us because we need a little yelling every once in awhile."
Surgery is scheduled to repair Nerlens Noel's torn anterior cruciate ligament. UK will not divulge the exact date.
Calipari emphasized the importance of enduring a grueling rehabilitation. Former UK player Rajon Rondo has described the rehab from ACL surgery as "the toughest, most painful" experience he's endured, the UK coach said.
Calipari expressed confidence that Noel will invest the required "sweat equity" to make a full recovery. "He's in a good frame of mind," the UK coach said.
With Noel gone, UK must go from depending on blocks to drawing charges. This transition has seen only two charges drawn (by Harrow and Poythress) in the three games without Noel.
"We're still working on it," Polson said. "At least we're attempting. That's a good thing. We're attempting them."
The Cats looked tentative and awkward in attempts against Missouri.
"It might not always look pretty, but I think if we keep attempting them, we'll get comfortable," Polson said.
Calipari has set a goal of drawing five charges per game, Polson said.
Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray cited concerns about Kyle Wiltjer. "I'm really concerned with him," he said. "He's so patient when he gets it in the post."
Ray also voiced concern about Poythress. "Big, strong, physical kid," he said. "I'm really concerned with him overpowering some of our kids."
Dave Neal and Jon Sund-vold will call the UK-Mississippi State game for the SEC Network.