UK Men's Basketball

UK plays South Carolina next. See why Gamecocks star blossomed when coach backed off.

Keldon Johnson says Cats ‘all on the same page’ now

UK freshman Keldon Johnson was one of three Wildcats to record a double-double Saturday night against Kansas. He talked up UK's team defense after the victory.
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UK freshman Keldon Johnson was one of three Wildcats to record a double-double Saturday night against Kansas. He talked up UK's team defense after the victory.

Earlier this season, South Carolina Coach Frank Martin was listening to the radio as he drove his car. That mundane activity sparked the extraordinary: a coach admitting he pushed a player too hard.

To borrow from the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray, coaches typically have the disposition of a drill sergeant with bunions. No matter how well a player performs, he must be striving for more-more-more (for example, John Calipari suggesting PJ Washington should regularly score 35 points and grab 20 rebounds). Comfort leads to complacency.

Yet Martin turned sensitive and introspective. He can’t remember whose voice he heard on the radio, but he remembers the message he subsequently acted upon.

“It was, like, you can’t force a flower to blossom,” he recalled on Thursday. “All you can do is keep putting water on it. And then when it blooms, you can’t make it bloom to the size you want.

“That kind of struck a nerve.”

Martin came to believe he had been pushing the Gamecocks’ senior big man and team leader, Chris Silva, too hard. With the water-the-flower analogy still fresh, Silva’s poor play at Wyoming on Dec. 5 moved Martin to action.

Silva had made three of 14 shots and scored 11 points. His busy stat line also included eight rebounds, three blocks and three steals in a 73-64 loss. But …

“He just played so uninspired,” Martin said. “After that game, we spent some time together.”

Martin blamed himself for Silva’s less-than-stellar start to the season. He admitted this to Silva. Then he told the team.

“I tried to give him too much too fast,” Martin said on a Jan. 14 teleconference. “Because he had gotten better at certain rates for three straight years, I expected him to take another big jump before the season started. I just put too much pressure and stuff on his plate rather than allowing him to be who he is.”

As a freshman, Silva averaged 5.4 points and 13.3 minutes. Then he blossomed into a starter for South Carolina’s 2017 Final Four team (10.3 ppg) and then last season was named the Southeastern Conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year.

“After that (Wyoming) game, I kind of told him ‘I’m going to hit the reset button from my end,’” Martin said. “Because you’re too good a teammate, too good a kid and I want you to get back to doing the things you’re good at.”

Silva, who leads South Carolina against Kentucky on Tuesday, has responded. He’s averaged 25 points in South Carolina’s last three games. That includes career highs of 32 points and 14 rebounds against Auburn on Jan. 22. The SEC Network said he was only the second player in the last 20 years to have 30 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and made 90 percent of his free throws (10 of 11) in a game.

Against No. 1 Tennessee on Tuesday, Silva posted his 21st career double-double: 28 points and 10 rebounds.

This harkened back to the Silva of old. Like the Silva who scored 27 points and grabbed eight rebounds in South Carolina’s 76-68 victory over Kentucky last season.

That Silva caused SEC coaches to gush at the league’s Media Day last October.

“Epitomizes energy,” Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said.

“I just love how hard he plays,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said.

“I think he’s extremely under-rated across the country,” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said. “He’s as physical and aggressive as anybody in the whole country.”

Martin said it was not unprecedented for him to ease off a player. He said he did so with Mindaugas Kacinas earlier this decade.

“I was playing without emotions, and it was really a struggle for me,” Silva told The Post and Courier, the daily newspaper in Charleston, S.C. “Coach told me to just enjoy the game. That’s what I try to do.”

As Silva as re-blossomed, so has South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ 5-7 record in the pre-conference portion of the schedule included losses to Stony Brook and Wofford.

The 5-2 record in SEC play going into this weekend included two victories over ranked opponents: then No. 14 Mississippi State and then No. 16 Auburn.

But Martin has not abandoned the tough love approach. He likens the player-coach relationship to an equation. Both sides of equal responsibility. Some players require tough love.

“There’s a lot of books on leadership,” he said. “There’s a lot of books on coaching. … There’s not a chapter you go and look at to help you with how to handle every individual.

“Chris gives you everything he’s got every single day. And when you see a guy so committed to working, that’s so excited by the next day not playing with that desire, it’s not his side of the equation that’s messed up. It’s your side.”

‘Final Four potential’

The ebullient one, Dick Vitale, said he thinks Kentucky will be a national championship contender this year.

“I like this team better than last year’s team,” the ESPN analyst said recently. “I love the depth factor.”

Vitale said he liked how UK Coach John Calipari rotated Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery in for PJ Washington and Reid Travis against Mississippi State. He liked Keldon Johnson’s “unbelievable glide-and-slide ability” and Tyler Herro’s “swag” and “toughness” and how Ashton Hagans “just suffocates the basketball.”

In conclusion, Vitale said, “So this is a really solid basketball team, and I think they’re going to be really a genuine threat come March. I really believe that. Final Four potential, absolutely.”

Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson grabbed a rebound against Kansas last Saturday in Rupp Arena. Dick Vitale said he likes Johnson’s “glide-and-slide ability.” Alex Slitz

‘Legacy bench’

Next weekend’s game at Mississippi State will give Kentucky another chance to compete against a trio of substitutes that have been dubbed the Bulldogs’ “Legacy bench.”

When the teams played in Rupp Arena on Jan. 22, junior guard Tyson Carter averaged 9.6 points. His father, Greg Carter, scored 1,123 points playing for State (1987-88 through 1990-91). The elder Carter was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2015.

Freshman forward Reggie Perry averaged 7.1 points. His father, Al Perry, played for State in 1974-75 through 1977-78. His 510 assists rank third in program history.

Freshman guard Robert Woodard II averaged 4.1 points. His father, Robert Woodard, was former Coach Richard Williams’ first recruit. He played from 1986-87 through 1989-90.

The trio just about hit their average at UK, combining for 23 points.

Historic foes

ESPN “College GameDay” noted that John Calipari and Bill Self are only the third set of coaches to compete against each other in more than one national championship game.

Self’s Kansas team beat Calipari’s Memphis team for the 2008 NCAA Tournament title. Calipari’s Kentucky team beat Self’s Kansas team in the 2012 finals.

The other two sets of coaches to compete in more than one national championship game:

Fred Taylor led Ohio State against Ed Jucker’s Cincinnati team in the 1961 and 1962 finals. Cincinnati won both games.

Branch McCracken led Indiana against Phog Allen’s Kansas team in the 1940 and 1953 finals. Indiana won both games.

Sign language

During the ESPN “College GameDay” show, the camera showed a woman holding up a sign clearly intended to send a message to Rece Davis, Seth Greenberg, Jay Williams and Jay Bilas.

It read: “Stop talking about Duke.”

Barnstable service

A visitation for the late Dale Barnstable will be held at Maxwell Presbyterian Church (180 East Maxwell Street in Lexington) at 2 p.m. Sunday. A short service will follow at 3:30 p.m.

The public is invited.

Happy birthday

To Andre Riddick. He turned 46 on Friday. … To Walter McCarty. He turned 45 on Friday. … To former UK assistant coach Doug Barnes. He turned 73 on Friday. … To Truman Claytor. He turned 62 on Saturday. … To Stan Key. He turned 69 on Saturday. … To Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy. He turned 55 on Saturday. … To Malik Monk. He turns 21 on Monday. … To Tai Wynyard. He turns 21 on Tuesday. … To Ramel Bradley. He turns 34 on Tuesday.