Kentucky fans may recall Keldon Johnson’s reaction to being whistled for a foul at Mississippi State last month. It was impossible to miss.
Johnson was at half-court. He turned to the UK bench. His face radiated an anguished expression. His body language decried what he viewed as a basketball injustice. This lasted more than a few seconds.
When asked almost two weeks later about Johnson’s reaction, UK associate coach Kenny Payne smiled. The message conveyed?
“How young they really are . . . ,” Payne said of this latest freshman-dependent Kentucky team. “If you have talented freshmen, you’re going to have to deal with some of these emotional roller-coaster (rides). And how you deal with it is vital.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Too intense a scolding can drain confidence. Too much indulgence lessens the chance for a player to reach his full potential.
“So it’s a delicate balance,” Payne said. “It’s very delicate.”
Heading into this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after that, UK Coach John Calipari had spoken bluntly about the challenge Johnson and freshmen in general can face in keeping their emotions in check.
After UK beat Florida on Saturday, Calipari said of a conversation with Johnson, “I told him, ‘If you’re a man, your responses are like a man. When you’re a child, you respond to things like a child.’
“And I said, ‘It’s time to grow up. You’ve got to be a man.’”
Johnson, who joined teammate and roommate Tyler Herro on the SEC coaches’ All-Freshman Team announced Tuesday, got the message.
“Well, if you act like a child, they’re going to consider you as a child,” he said Tuesday. “So you have the actions of a child. Reacting to referees’ calls like that or exaggerating it is definitely something I try not to do. You’ve got to grow up and be a man and accept (the call) and move on to the next play. It’s over with.”
Calipari and PJ Washington, UK’s First Team All-SEC player, spoke of the difference they’ve seen in Johnson lately.
“He’s grown a lot,” Washington said. “At the beginning of the season, he wasn’t that far (along the growth curve). Now, he’s a lot further than he was.”
Calipari saluted Johnson’s growing ability to “self-evaluate,” meaning the ability to make in-game corrections in dealing with calls you don’t like or other forms of adversity.
“That’s the step to changing,” Calipari said of the self-evaluation process. “So he’s growing up right before our eyes.”
An outgoing personality with a recognized ability to trash talk, Johnson said that he noticed an increased ability in self-evaluation by UK’s freshmen around Christmas.
“We started realizing that some things just are not acceptable,” he said. “We just had to fix those things.”
When Calipari spoke of this on his radio show Monday night, listeners could imagine a smile on his face.
“Tyler Herro and even Keldon are learning to self-evaluate, which is what special players do . . . ,” the UK coach said. “It’s hard to self-evaluate when the flattery is coming at you.”
Kentucky is not asking Johnson or other UK freshmen to be stoic on the court. The emotion he brings to basketball benefits Kentucky.
“He’s a great player on both ends of the floor,” Washington said. “He brings great energy to the game, and we feed off that.”
Herro attributed the emotion Johnson brings to games as a reflection of competitive spirit.
“He’s just a competitive player,” Herro said. “He likes to win. So when you’re competitive, you just react.”
Johnson has learned “it’s a long game,” Herro added. “I think he learned that sticking to the course of playing the whole 40 minutes.”
After the victory over Florida, Calipari applauded the emotion that Johnson brings to the game. No doubt he also applauded Johnson’s growing ability to channel that emotion.
“You know, the kid really cares,” Calipari said, “and that’s so important. And the kid’s trying to do the right stuff. And that’s really important.”
No. 4 Kentucky vs. Mississippi or Alabama
What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals
When: 7 p.m. EDT Friday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
TV: SEC Network
At Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
Wednesday’s first round
Missouri vs. Georgia, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Texas A&M vs. Vanderbilt, 9:30 p.m. (SEC)
Thursday’s second round
Florida vs. Arkansas, 1 p.m. (SEC)
Auburn vs. Missouri-Georgia winner, 3:30 p.m. (SEC)
Mississippi vs. Alabama, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Mississippi State vs. Texas A&M-Vanderbilt winner, 9:30 p.m. (SEC)
LSU vs. Florida-Arkansas winner, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
South Carolina vs. Auburn—Missouri-Georgia winner, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Kentucky vs. Mississippi-Alabama winner, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Tennessee vs. Mississippi State—Texas A&M-Vanderbilt winner, 9:30 p.m. (SEC)
The Associated Press and the league’s coaches named their All-SEC teams and award winners on Tuesday:
First Team — Daniel Gafford, Arkansas; PJ Washington, Kentucky; Tremont Waters, LSU; Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State; Grant Williams, Tennessee
Second Team — Jordan Bone, Tennessee; Jared Harper, Auburn; Admiral Schofield, Tennessee; Breein Tyree, Mississippi; Chris Silva, South Carolina
Awards — Player of the Year: Grant Williams, Tennessee; Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Mississippi; Newcomer of the Year: Tyler Herro, Kentucky
First Team — Daniel Gafford, Arkansas; PJ Washington, Kentucky; Tremont Waters, LSU; Breein Tyree, Mississippi; Quindarry Weatherspoon, Mississippi State; Chris Silva, South Carolina; Admiral Schofield, Tennessee; Grant Williams, Tennessee
Second Team — Bryce Brown, Auburn; Jared Harper, Auburn; Nicolas Claxton, Georgia; Tyler Herro, Kentucky; Keldon Johnson, Kentucky; Skylar Mays, LSU; Terence Davis, Mississippi; Jordan Bone, Tennessee
All-Freshman Team — Kira Lewis Jr., Alabama; Isaiah Joe, Arkansas; Andrew Nembhard, Florida; Tyler Herro, Kentucky; Keldon Johnson, Kentucky; Naz Reid, LSU; Reggie Perry, Mississippi State; A.J. Lawson, South Carolina
All-Defensive Team — Donta Hall, Alabama; Daniel Gafford, Arkansas; Ashton Hagans, Kentucky; Tremont Waters, LSU; Chris Silva, South Carolina
Awards — Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Mississippi; Player of the Year: Grant Williams, Tennessee; Scholar-Athlete of the Year: Skylar Mays, LSU; Freshman of the Year: Keldon Johnson, Kentucky; Sixth-Man of the Year: Hassani Gravett, South Carolina; Co-Defensive Players of the Year: Tremont Waters, LSU; Ashton Hagans, Kentucky