For Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, leading Kentucky’s team by example starts before dawn and sometimes does not end until dusk. It means regularly studying video of his performances with assistant coach Joel Justus. It means setting the standard in weight-lifting sessions. It means being on time for class and tutoring sessions.
“I’ve never met a player undisciplined off the court that is disciplined on the court,” UK Coach John Calipari said Tuesday. “It just doesn’t work that way. If you’re undisciplined, there’s a point in the game when you’ll just break down.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, who said he started 7 a.m. shooting sessions in December, made it seem he has not done these dawn-to-dusk things as part of a conscious effort to lead.
“No pressure (as a leader),” he said. “That’s just my mentality. What I hold myself to. I try to give everything I have to everything I do.”
Coaches and teammates noticed.
Sometime after Kentucky lost at Auburn, which was the team’s fourth straight defeat, Calipari said he called Gilgeous-Alexander’s mentality to the attention of the other players.
“Who’s our best player?” he said in recalling asking the players post-Auburn. “They said Shai.”
Calipari remarked how Gilgeous-Alexander regularly got in extra shooting at 7 a.m., watched video and was punctual for class and tutors.
“Maybe . . . that’s why he was our best player,” Calipari said he told the players. “Would anyone like to join him? How about he’s out there alone?”
After saying teammates might use the excuse of fatigue for not shooting at 7 a.m., Calipari said, “I would tell you to be tired when it’s dead and over, and you’re in the casket. It’s a great time to be tired.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said that he was not immune to fatigue. Shooting at 7 a.m. was not easy when he started in December.
“Then I got used to it,” he said. “It’s easy now.”
Nor does he shoot at 7 a.m. each and every day, even, say, after the team returns from a late road game several hours after midnight.
“Not when we play,” he said with a smile. “I need rest.”
He said he shoots four or five days a week.
As is the case with his teammates, Gilgeous-Alexander had to adjust his game to the college level. Calipari defined each player’s role in the team effort in recent weeks. Those who did not adhere to the assigned role would see reduced playing time, the UK coach said.
Coincidentally or not, a three-game winning streak followed a four-game losing streak. The guiding principle was to foster teamwork and unity of purpose.
“My role is to make plays for my teammates and myself,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
This comes down to decision-making once in the lane, he said. The options he’s considered have changed.
“Earlier, when I started getting off a little bit, I was driving into the lane. I wasn’t too big on (opposing) teams’ scouting reports. Then they made an adjustment and started collapsing, and I got in a little bit of trouble.”
After watching video with Justus, Gilgeous-Alexander adjusted to the opponents’ adjustment. In recent games, he’s become more adept on the drive at lobbing for dunks or finding open teammates on the perimeter.
Calipari acknowledged the improvement he’s seen in three straight victories by double-digit margins. But he remained wary.
“They’ll revert to what they know best, which is what they’ve done the last eight years,” he said. “They come here. What got you here isn’t going to get you or us there. . . .
“I’m not fighting guys every day. I’m enjoying walking into practice.”
Such has not always been the case in a season full of challenges, most prominently the task of coaching arguably the least experienced team in college basketball history, he said.
“It tired me out this year,” Calipari said. “You see I’m getting my second wind. You see me, I’m whistling and skipping in there (to practice).
“But I was dragging about three weeks ago.”
Mississippi at No. 23 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Mississippi 12-17 (5-11 SEC), Kentucky 20-9 (9-7)
Series: Kentucky leads 105-13
Last meeting: Kentucky won 99-76 on Dec. 29, 2016, at Oxford, Miss.