UK Men's Basketball

Cats soared when players embraced roles. Will that continue when it’s win or go home?

Slideshow: Kentucky practices in Boise on eve of NCAA tourney opener

The University of Kentucky practiced Wednesday in Boise, Idaho, ahead of their game Thursday night against Davidson in the NCAA Tournament. Coach John Calipari even took a half-court shot. Better luck next time.
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The University of Kentucky practiced Wednesday in Boise, Idaho, ahead of their game Thursday night against Davidson in the NCAA Tournament. Coach John Calipari even took a half-court shot. Better luck next time.

Nick Richards had to play more like Jarred Vanderbilt. Quade Green needed to quit dribbling so much. Wenyen Gabriel was a shooter (make that a SHOOTER!). Hamidou Diallo needed to eliminate unnecessary flourishes, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had to consider passing after penetrating defenses and PJ Washington had to play bully-ball.

Because of these well-defined roles, Kentucky comes into the NCAA Tournament on a roll. That was the message from players who spoke with the media Wednesday about Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Davidson and — they hope — beyond.

As Gabriel explained, players used to doing it all had to learn that less could be more.

“You’re doing everything on your high school team,” he said. “Sometimes you come out here, you feel you need to do everything when what’s best for the team is for you not to do everything. . . . You have to do what you’re best at.”

That sounds logical. But it’s not that simple.

“That’s definitely important,” Diallo said of Calipari defining roles for players. “Because you need to know what you need to do for a team. You might have other things you can do, but what the team needs you to do is this. You put that as a No. 1 priority.”

You’re doing everything on your high school team. Sometimes you come out here, you feel you need to do everything when what’s best for the team is for you not to do everything. . . . You have to do what you’re best at.

Wenyen Gabriel

Speaking of simple, Calipari asked Diallo to simplify his game. The 360-degree mid-air spins en route to dunks had to give way to the old reliable banked layup.

“Just try to be as simple as possible,” Diallo said of his role. “Not try to bring all the cool stuff to the game. . . . I feel I can do more, but I’ve just got to do what the team needs me to do, and just play my role while I’m here.”

As Green explained it, Calipari also wanted him to simplify his game while moving from point guard to off the ball.

“He doesn’t want me dribbling 10 times,” Green said. “He hates that.”

And how did the UK coach get this message across?

“Yelling in all different types of ways,” Green said with a smile. “It got me to realize he hates that.”

While redshirting last year, Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo attended but didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament. He’s ready to go this year.

Richards said he was motivated by Calipari’s call to play with Vanderbilt’s zeal.

Washington, who said that each meeting with players about roles lasted about 15 to 20 minutes, heard that he should be a low-post presence.

“Basically, be a beast down low,” he said. “He just wants me to basically try to be a bully down low and get easy baskets for the team. And try to be a bruiser down there and get a lot of rebounds.”

This seemed to stray from an earlier Calipari message when he said Washington could be UK’s Draymond Green.

Green is more an inside-outside player, Washington said before adding, Calipari “feels a lot of guys can’t guard him down low. So he wants me to attack and get easy baskets.”

While some sacrifice for the good of the team was required, Gilgeous-Alexander had been an exception. He is UK’s trigger man.

“It hasn’t been too hard for me to accept (a role),” he said with a smile. “It’s not too bad a role.”

Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander talks to media on Wednesday before UK’s first round NCAA Tournament game Thursday against Davidson.

The UK players credited the assigning of roles as a reason Kentucky has won seven of its last eight games heading into the NCAA Tournament.

But in Davidson, Kentucky faces a senior-laden team that has more experience in settled roles. UK players spoke of the need to use the comfort of roles to remain steady in a test of nerves.

“We have to be really locked in defensively,” Diallo said. “They’re a team that runs a lot of stuff and tries to play through the whole shot clock. So we have to really play the whole shot clock and make sure we’re not trying to go back down on offense and shoot bad shots. Because you don’t want to be on defense 30 seconds, then on offense for two or five or seven (seconds).”

Davidson’s ability to take and make three-pointers has Kentucky’s attention. Davidson averages 27.3 three-point shots and 10.7 three-point baskets.

But Davidson is aware that UK has held opponents to 29.9-percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Kentucky forward Kevin Knox on some experts picking Davidson to upset UK in first round of NCAA Tournament.

“Length and quickness, whether you’re a guard or a big man, is going to create chaos for you,” Davidson Coach Bob McKillop told the Charlotte Observer. “Now, we’ve got size. But we don’t have length and quickness. Those guys are wide receivers. Those guys are defensive backs. The way they can make a break on the ball, we’re going to have challenges every position one-(to)-five.”

To hear Kellan Grady, the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, Davidson will not be afraid.

“I certainly think we can give their coach some nerves,” Grady told the Charlotte Observer. “One could assume when an A-10 team gets in on an automatic bid and sees Kentucky as their opponent and be fearful.

“We’re excited. We really feel comfortable about this matchup. Three days to prepare for us? We think that works in our favor.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Kentucky freshman Jemarl Baker, who missed this season with a knee injury, talked to the media at the NCAA Tournament in Boise.

Kentucky practices for the NCAA Tournament at Taco Bell Arena In Boise, Idaho

Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, who missed the SEC Tournament with an ankle injury, talks about his chances of playing in the NCAA Tournament this weekend in Boise.

Thursday

Kentucky vs. Davidson

What: NCAA Tournament South Region round-of-64 game

When: 7:10 p.m. EDT

Where: Taco Bell Arena at Boise State University

TV: CBS-27

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 24-10, Davidson 21-11

Series: Kentucky leads 1-0

Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-55 on March 14, 1986, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Charlotte, N.C.

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