UK Men's Basketball

California road trip excites UK’s Marcus Lee

Kentucky forward Marcus Lee pulled down a rebound as the No. 1 Cats beat Illinois State on Monday. Lee had 13 points and a career-high 12 rebounds in the 75-63 win.
Kentucky forward Marcus Lee pulled down a rebound as the No. 1 Cats beat Illinois State on Monday. Lee had 13 points and a career-high 12 rebounds in the 75-63 win. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Marcus Lee did not try to be nonchalant about Kentucky’s game Thursday at UCLA. To borrow one of John Calipari’s words, Lee was not “casual” about UK’s next road trip.

“We never go that far,” he said Monday after UK beat Illinois State. “We never go past Texas, probably. But I’m really excited to go home. I’ve been waiting three years to go home and have my friends and family come watch.”

Lee also spoke of looking forward to showing his UK teammates his home turf.

“See where I live and see what’s the difference between Kentucky and California,” he said. “So I’m really loving going home.”

The weather, of course, is one difference. “The weather will stay the same the whole day (in California),” Lee said. “That’s the one thing that still bothers me (about Kentucky).”

Yes, Lee said, he circled the date — Dec. 3 — on his calendar.

“Oh, immediately,” he said.

Of course, “home” is a relative term. Lee is from Antioch, Calif., which is about 45 miles east of San Francisco. He estimated that it would be a six-hour drive to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. To put that in perspective, cities about six hours from Lexington include Memphis, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

“California is really big,” Lee said. “I’m Northern California, and we’re going to Southern California. Still, it’s in the same state, and I’m excited to be anywhere near home. ... It’s just really a relaxing time out there, and I just hope to enjoy it.”

It’s fair to guess that Calipari would not use the word relaxing to describe the approach he wants his players to take to the game at UCLA and to all games. The UK coach has talked about intensity, fight and grit throughout the preseason and early season.

Lee didn’t bring those qualities to Kentucky’s game against South Florida on Friday. He had four points and six rebounds.

When asked Monday night what message he had for Lee after that game, Calipari said, “Obviously, you know what I said. Alex started.”

As messages go, Alex Poythress starting instead of Lee against Illinois State came through loud and clear. Coincidentally or not, Lee scored 13 points and grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds against Illinois State.

“After having a couple bad games, you have to either figure it out or stand back,” Lee said. “And that’s not something I do. So I got that message.”

One of the things I told him is, ‘If you’re not playing with energy, I’m not playing you.’ If he’s to make it, it’s going to be on one thing. He’s an energy guy who can cover a bunch of positions. And you need that kind of player on your team.

John Calipari, talking about Marcus Lee

On Sunday, Calipari said each UK player should have a plan for how to improve and meet his personal goals. For Lee, that plan should include hustle and active play.

“One of the things I told him is, ‘If you’re not playing with energy, I’m not playing you,’” Calipari said. “If he’s to make it, it’s going to be on one thing. He’s an energy guy who can cover a bunch of positions. And you need that kind of player on your team.”

Calipari also said that pregame preparation is a key to being an energy guy.

“You have ‘sleepies’ in the corners (of your eyes), you can’t do it,” the UK coach said. “You’ve got to prepare all day to come out to play with unbelievable energy.”

In case anyone didn’t understand, Calipari explained the mindset he expects from an energy guy.

“‘I know who I am,’” he said. “‘No, I’m not a great shooter. No, I’m not a great free throw shooter. But I can dunk balls. I can rebound. I can block. I can guard four positions, and I can play with unbelievable energy.”

Lee sounded unimpressed by his double-double against Illinois State even though it was his second in the past five games.

“I still see it as an OK game,” he said. “And that’s how the coaches put it. ‘You played OK today.’ It wasn’t the best I was able to do to help my team, and I know that. I still have to work on giving my team everything.”

An observer might think a career-high 12 rebounds moved a performance beyond merely OK.

“I still got yelled at for that,” Lee said. “Because my coaches have expectations for me averaging a double-double: 20 rebounds, 20 points; all my high school career.”

In fact, Lee averaged 17.7 points and 19.5 rebounds as a high school senior. But close enough.

“They have expectations of me,” Lee said of UK’s coaches, “and I have to exceed that expectation. So being under what they see in me is an OK game. And that drives me.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Thursday

Kentucky at UCLA

9 p.m. (ESPN)

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