To understand Kentucky’s surge going into Southeastern Conference play, it might help to think of a basketball team as an ensemble company. Each Wildcat must play his part, hit his marks, know his lines and perform them well.
“We had to really define roles,” John Calipari said on an SEC coaches’ teleconference Thursday when asked about his team’s improvement.
Alabama Coach Avery Johnson, whose team plays host to Kentucky on Saturday, said an understanding of roles is an indispensable component of winning basketball. “It helps on any level whether college or NBA,” he said.
Johnson said he noticed this communal understanding of individual and team roles in Kentucky’s play of late. “The guys on the team know where their minutes are going to come . . . ,” he said. “They have a little bit of an identity which I think helped their team.”
Johnson and UK players linked this understanding to Ashton Hagans’ emergence at point guard.
“Ashton’s getting everyone involved, and everybody else is just playing off that . . . ,” Keldon Johnson said later Thursday. “We trust him to make the right play or make the open shot.”
Associate coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for Calipari at a pre-Alabama news conference, mentioned Hagans first as a key component to Kentucky’s aspiration to win a national championship. Hagans’ multifaceted role includes being “a pest” on defense, Payne said, plus getting the ball to teammates open for a shot, pushing the tempo and controlling the offense.
Johnson, who has scored double-digit points in all but one of Kentucky’s 12 games, has emerged as a go-to guy.
“I’m comfortable with it,” he said of the role. “As long as my teammates trust me with that role, and my coaches trust me with that role, it gives me more confidence than I already have.”
When asked to put into words a description of his role, Johnson said, “Bring energy. Be a leader. When I’m on the court, just play basketball. Just be a basketball player. Just do what I do. Just go out there and be Keldon Johnson.”
Payne pointed out how a player’s role can change from season to season. He used Reid Travis as an example. In his last two seasons at Stanford, Travis blocked a total of nine shots. In UK’s first 12 games, Travis has blocked 10.
Why the dramatic increase? UK wants rim protection among other things from its “bigs,” Payne said.
Jemarl Baker, who also spoke with reporters, said he, too, had a multi-purpose role.
“Just to come in, spread the court, knock down shots and defend,” he said. “I’ve been trying to do that the best that I can.”
Payne cautioned reporters from thinking of Baker as merely a shooter.
“It started out (with) everybody talking about jump shots,” Payne said. But a review of game video showed that Baker could contribute in other ways.
“He’s fighting defensively,” Payne said of what the video revealed. “He’s giving us positive minutes on the floor by being solid offensively. More importantly, by getting after it defensively. We need that.”
As individual players progress at different rates, so, too, does the defining of roles not follow an unchanging pattern. Roles can change, as Payne said of the adjustment Travis is making. And coaches can need more time to ponder a player’s role.
EJ Montgomery serves as an example of the latter. Calipari has spoken of Montgomery as one of four players competing to be included in Kentucky’s three-player rotation of “bigs.” Calipari has also thought aloud of Montgomery getting minutes at small forward.
“Cal’s trying to figure EJ out,” Payne said. “But, to me, EJ has already established he can block shots. He can rebound at a high clip. He’s active when he’s on the floor.”
Montgomery has played no more than 12 minutes in any of UK’s last four games. Against North Carolina, he only had a two-minute cameo appearance.
Nick Richards — another of Kentucky’s four “bigs” — hasn’t played more than 12 minutes in a game since Nov. 14.
Yet there are roles — important roles, Payne said — for Montgomery and Richards to play. If expanded upon, contributions against Louisville by Montgomery (two points, two rebounds in 10 minutes) and Richards (three rebounds, one block in seven minutes) can make a telling difference.
“It gave PJ (Washington) and Reid (Travis) a chance to rest,” Payne said. “We need that from (Montgomery and Richards). Because if . . . Reid is playing 37, 38 minutes and PJ is playing 35, they’re going to wear down. We need them to play 28 to 32.”
No. 13 Kentucky at Alabama
When: 1 p.m. EST Saturday