For all the double-doubles and dunks, Kentucky standout Julius Randle is not any different from other freshman in one important respect: He is an unfinished product.
"Julius Randle is a talented, talented kid and is a great basketball player," said assistant Kenny Payne, who substituted for Kentucky Coach John Calipari at a news conference Tuesday. "But he's learning. ... A year ago he was playing high school basketball."
A lesson came last weekend at Mississippi State. In his post-game news conference, Calipari said that Randle reacted like a "baby" when told he had to do a better job providing help defense around the basket. A spiteful Randle reacted by leaving an open shooter on the perimeter, Calipari said.
"I think the big part was showing him on film," Payne said when asked about how Randle handled Calipari's memorably candid assessment. "You know, in the heat of the battle, you get emotional, so you may not see it the way the coach sees it. So when we broke down the film and showed it to him, he understood and he saw it.
"It's all part of growth."
Of course, Randle draws multiple defenders when he touches the ball around the basket.
"He should start every game out being a facilitator, and then we have enough talent around him where we can burn them as a team," Payne said. "If that happens, it opens it up for him. The other part of the game is: The better we are defensively and running out in transition, the better it is for him; it loosens him up."
Payne suggested James Young can enhance his game and UK's team performance by not settling for jump shots.
"If he ball fakes and gets in the lane, he can make one-dribble pull-ups, he can get fouled and go to the free-throw line," Payne said. "There's so much more that he can do to help this team than just stand still and shoot jumpers. We need that from him. That's his growth. That's a part of what he has to do to help this team be great."
Payne on what UK looks like if five or six players play their best: "Who knows how good we can be? And if we do it consistently, it's scary."
Payne said UK came closest to reaching its peak level of play on offense at Missouri.
UK continues to work on improving its transition defense, Payne said.
"Because every team seems to be using that as a disadvantage for us," he said. "That's a weakness of our team that we've got to correct."
Payne cited inexperience as a factor in Kentucky failing to get back on defense.
"No question," he said. "There's a saying that we're taking pictures. So the ball goes up, somebody shoots it and we're watching the ball instead of getting back on defense."
Auburn Coach Tony Barbee said UK's half-court defense is so good, it's a factor in opponents looking for scoring opportunities in transition.
"Any team that can switch one through five, and their five can guard your one and keep him in front, that's a ridiculously good defensive team," Barbee said.
Transition offense begins with defensive rebounding, Barbee reminded reporters.
"So getting that rebound and getting out in transition is a whole different animal," he said.
Auburn ranks ninth in rebound margin in league play: minus 3.2.
Auburn is Kentucky's favorite punching bag. The Cats have beaten Auburn 15 straight times, easily UK's longest winning streak against a league opponent (the next-longest win streak is six against Mississippi State and South Carolina). UK has won 29 of the last 30 meetings against Auburn.
Although Kentucky plays No. 3 Florida on Saturday, Payne said, "There's no risk in overlooking Auburn. We all know that Auburn can beat us. We know that we're going to get their best game. We know that they're a very, very good team who has two guards who are really playing well. The last five games, one of them's averaging — Denson's averaging 24, and Harrell is averaging 20. If we walk in there and think that we're just going to beat them, it's not happening. We will have to play well to beat that team, and especially at their home."
Auburn guards Chris Denson (20.2 ppg) and KT Harrell (19.4 ppg) form the fifth-most prolific scoring combination in college basketball. They average more points than Missouri's Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson (39.0 ppg).
By the way, former UK player Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter give Georgia State the ninth-highest scoring combo at 37.8 ppg.
Barbee offered two observations that should not come as surprises:
■ "It's no secret for this team to be successful, we've got to get our interior players to play better."
■ "No secret what Kentucky does. They beat you on the offensive glass. So we're going to have to do a better job than last game rebounding off the defensive glass."
LSU big men Johnny O'Bryant III, Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin combined for 44 points and 28 rebounds in an 87-80 victory over Auburn last weekend.
UK's 75-53 victory at Auburn remains a vivid memory.
"I can't really say we'll win or we'll lose," Harrell said. "But I know one thing: We're going to fight as hard as we possibly can. I guarantee you it won't be like last year's game. We'll definitely put up a lot more fight than we did last year."
Bring it on
Denson welcomed the idea of UK switching on ball screens.
"Honestly, we and KT and Tahj (Shamsid-Deen) love that kind of stuff," he said. "A five can be on me means penetrate and kick it there all night."
Barbee played and coached for Calipari. They remain close.
"He called me first thing this morning," Barbee said, "and accused me of sleeping in (and) feeling comfortable we had this game in the bag.
"I told him we just got finished with our first practice of the day."
Added Barbee with a smile, "I been around the guy too long. He knows those kind of head games are not going to work on me."