UK Men's Basketball

Cousins doesn't back down from physical play

A question about the NBA's 2010 draft brings a smile to DeMarcus Cousins' face. Then the big man quickly insists he's concentrating only on bringing Kentucky its eighth national championship this spring.

"The NBA's not even on my mind, right now," he said Wednesday as a UK Athletics Department staffer listened to the interview. "I'm just playing ball."

Of course, he's playing basketball well enough to put NBA thoughts in the minds of others, particularly UK fans anxious about a mass defection of the star freshman class after this season.

In a more private moment last summer, Cousins also spoke of an NCAA Tournament championship this year as his top priority.

"But if there's an opportunity to go one-and-done," he added, "I'm going to take it."

Any discussion about Cousins inevitably touches on his temperament. He came to UK with a reputation for having a short fuse and a list of ill-considered episodes on the court.

"I was young and dumb," he said of a high school career that began in Birmingham, Ala., and finished in Mobile.

His reputation went south, too, after incidents that included:

■ A fight on a school bus as a sophomore that led him to transfer from Birmingham's Erwin High School.

■ Arguing with one of his coaches in an Alabama North-South All-Star Game that led to a benching.

■ A loss to Parker High, led by future UK teammate Eric Bledsoe, in Alabama's Class 5A state semifinals. Cousins fouled out on a technical foul, thus validating the opposition's plan to distract and frustrate him.

According to a Birmingham News story on the game, Cousins pouted when he didn't get the call and "made a big show of applauding the referees when he did get a call in his favor."

When asked before this season if his Parker team tried to incite Cousins, Bledsoe said, "Oh, yeah. He doesn't play good when he's frustrated."

The strategy was to "get on him and start fouling him a lot," Bledsoe said. "He gets real mad, especially when the referee doesn't call a foul."

While the attempts at incitement carried over to the college level, Cousins' retaliations have not incurred any penalty beyond technicals against Cleveland State (slinging a player to the floor) and Louisville (forearm thrust to an opponent laying on the court).

"To me, the whole game plan is overrated," Cousins said. "I mean, it doesn't work.

"When they get physical, I get physical back. And I'm a physical player anyway. 'Oh, he can't handle it' (and) 'He doesn't know how to react to physical play.' I'm just coming back with physical play myself."

Onlookers continue to wonder if Cousins will blow his top.

"The biggest threat to Kentucky's national title hopes is that DeMarcus Cousins seems a little unbalanced and capable of snapping at any time," wrote Gary Parrish of after UK beat Louisville. " ... When he loses focus, he's the sulking giant with an attitude problem on the verge of doing something stupid and costly."

As recently as Monday's Southeastern Conference teleconference, UK Coach John Calipari noted how Cousins was making progress in learning how to present himself. The player had to continue to improve his body language, Calipari said.

"I do have a lot of maturing to do," Cousins said. "I do know that. That just comes with time."

But if basketball had a Lady Byng Trophy (which the National Hockey League annually gives to the player who exhibits sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct), Cousins is not interested.

"People think it's bad," he said of his on-court attitude. "At the same time, other people love the fact I play that way. It goes back and forth. I'm just going to be me, regardless."

In talking with NBA scouts and officials, some approved of Cousins' physical play. A player needing to dial down his aggressive play is preferred to a player who needs to be prodded to mix it up.

Cousins is appraised as a cinch first-rounder in the 2010 NBA Draft. In its Jan. 13 update, projected Cousins as the second player selected (behind teammate John Wall).

Whatever the NBA perceptions, Cousins acknowledged that he carries his reputation for a short fuse into games.

"I mean, I'm warned before every game," he said. "Coach tells me to expect tough play."

An incident in the game at Auburn last weekend reflected how his reputation precedes him. When an exchange of bumps led Cousins to check his nose for blood, referee Joe Lindsay insisted the UK player shake the hand of Auburn's Kenny Gabriel.

"Or you've got to sit out," Cousins said Lindsay told him. So Cousins shook Gabriel's hand and gave Lindsay a look the UK player described as "Are you serious?"

"It is reputation that is following me," Cousins said. "I believe the referees look for every little thing with me. Things just blow out of proportion like that, of course.

"They also don't see the dirty play coming toward me."

Cousins feels wounded by what he sees as the unfairness of it all.

"How much trouble have I gotten into (away from) the court?" he said. "You've never heard about me getting into trouble outside the court. Everything has been basketball related. But they say I'm such a bad person."