Kentucky would be a lot better if now-and-then contributors became now-and-forever studs.
That kind of consistency from experienced players such as Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee would make a significant difference, UK Coach John Calipari said Friday.
Poythress and Lee both fouled out in Kentucky’s loss at LSU on Tuesday. Each would almost have to contribute more at Alabama on Saturday, especially Lee, who fouled out in five minutes in Baton Rouge.
“That may be a world record for anybody,” said Lee, whose managed to retain a sense of humor.
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Freshman Skal Labissiere has taken the brunt of criticism as Kentucky failed so far to establish a presence around the basket. Calipari said that Labissiere needed to improve his three-point, two-rebound cameo appearance at LSU.
“But,” the UK coach added, “he wasn’t the issue. We had some other guys who are veterans who gave us (pause) nothing.
“Then you’re expecting (Labissiere), who’s just getting his feet underneath him, to do more than he’s capable of doing.”
7-8-12The combined contributions in points, rebounds and fouls by front-court players Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Skal Labissiere on Tuesday night at LSU
LSU imposed its will on Kentucky. The Tigers outscored UK 44-24 in the paint and enjoyed a 46-32 rebound advantage.
“It makes it hard,” Calipari said of not having a credible low-post presence. “We have guys capable. They’re just not doing it. They’re doing it now and then.”
Of course, those players are Poythress and Lee.
“When they really do it, we look really good,” Calipari said. “When they decide they’re not doing it for whatever reason, they’re not capable of doing it.”
They’ve always been in the now-and-then position. Every now and then give us a good game. Now, it’s like every day, and that’s hard.
John Calipari, on Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee
Though both McDonald’s All-Americans coming out of high school, Poythress and Lee were complementary players for UK until this season.
Poythress, a senior, had started only eight games the previous two seasons, in part because he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in December 2014. He did not average as much as six points nor five rebounds in either of the last two seasons.
“He wants to do well,” Calipari said of Poythress. “But he’s still trying to figure out who he is.”
Poythress has shown flashes that whet the appetite of what’s to come. Except it has not materialized.
“There are times when you watch him and you go, ‘Wow!’” Calipari said. “Then there are other times (you ask), ‘Is he in the game?’”
Lee, a junior, had started only four games in his career. He’d never averaged as much as three points nor three rebounds nor 11 minutes a game.
Now, Poythress and Lee are Kentucky’s starting front line. Labissiere’s struggles only heighten the need for the two to speed up the transition to foundational pieces.
“Hard, hard, hard,” Calipari said of this role change. “Hard deal because it’s not every now and then.
“They’ve always been in the now-and-then position. Every now and then give us a good game. Now, it’s like every day, and that’s hard.”
Most players say they want to be prominent players, Calipari said. But along with the presumed glory comes a daily responsibility to perform.
Additional pressure comes with playing for Kentucky, where a shot that rattles in rather than swishes can cause consternation.
Alabama (9-4) has the size to look UK’s front line in the eye. The Tide regularly rotates four players 6-foot-8 or taller into games.
“Physical,” Calipari said of Alabama. “Great presence around the basket. Tough. Dive on the floor. . . . This is a really hard game for us.”
Kentucky’s lack of credible size may heighten the anticipation of freshman Tai Wynyard. Like the backup quarterback who supposedly is the answer, Wynyard will carry the hope of being a low-post presence if and when he plays.
“We may stick him in tomorrow,” Calipari said. “I may not.”
Wynyard, who does not turn 18 until Feb. 5, joined the team in mid-December. When asked how the native of New Zealand might impact UK’s season, teammates qualified their responses.
“I definitely think at one point, he’ll be able to add something like that,” Lee said. “Right now, we’re trying to (help him) get up to team speed and (learn) all the plays. Once he’s ready and situated, I think he’ll contribute a lot.”
Mychal Mulder said Wynyard had the bulk to play around the basket. “He’s really strong,” Mulder said. “He sets some really good screens. He’s able to keep people out of the post and keep people in front of him.”
Because of what happened — or didn’t happen, if you will — at LSU, Kentucky’s big men may have a keener thirst for competition in Tuscaloosa.
“Without a doubt,” Lee said. “Because as ‘bigs’ we still struggle with having the name of weak and not strong. And that’s something we’re still learning and trying to figure out.”
Kentucky at Alabama
When: 6 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 11-3 (1-1 SEC), Alabama 9-4 (0-1)
Series: Kentucky leads 105-37
Last meeting: Kentucky won 70-55 on Jan. 31, 2015, in Lexington.