Skal Labissiere, the engaging young man caught in the never-dimming Kentucky basketball spotlight, knows what he must do. Nothing less than change his personality when on the court.
Off the court? “I’m very laid back,” he said. “Very chill. Sociable.”
Although his basketball performances this season have been dissected like a frog in a high school biology class, Labissiere fit that description as he spoke to reporters Monday. He was remarkably friendly and cooperative. An inviting smile repeatedly returned to his face as he handled question after question about his supposed shortcomings.
Of course, the personality UK coaches, players and fans want him to adopt on the court is far different. Something along the lines of a standup guy who radiates intensity. If there’s any chill, it should be found going down the spines of opponents.
“I’m supposed to be mean, I guess,” Labissiere said, sounding anything but menacing before bursting into self-conscious laughter. “I don’t know.”
At one point, a television cameraman asked Labissiere to show a mean face. On that ridiculous note, an eight-minute session with reporters ended.
More seriously, Labissiere acknowledged that he must play better.
“My confidence was down a little bit,” he said. “I’m good now.”
Yes, he said, he felt the weight of expectation that comes with being projected as one of the first players selected in this year’s NBA Draft.
“I put too much pressure on myself,” he said, “and that’s one of the things I have to work on.”
Yes, he said in response to a follow-up question, playing for Kentucky only adds to this pressure.
“At the same time, I have to embrace the challenge,” Labissiere said. “I’m glad I came here.”
Assistant Coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for John Calipari at Monday’s news conference, said that Labissiere had lost “a little” confidence.
Then, Payne added, “We expect at any time he’s going to break out and have a super game. Hopefully, it’s against LSU.”
If that breakout comes Tuesday at LSU, Labissiere can be accused of having exquisite timing. The game has long been anticipated as a showdown between two star freshmen: Ben Simmons of LSU and Labissiere.
Labissiere, a teammate of Simmons at a U.S.-versus-the world all-star game, complimented the LSU star. “His basketball IQ is off the charts,” the UK freshman said. “We played really well together.”
Labissiere rejected the notion of a one-on-one duel. “It’s about our team going against LSU,” he said.
Payne said that it might take multiple defenders to contain Simmons, who was named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week on Monday. He averaged 28.5 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks in games last week against Wake Forest and Vanderbilt.
“Very unique basketball player,” Payne said. “If you guard him with a ‘big,’ he has the ability to play like a point guard. If you guard him with a smaller player, he has the ability to play like a ‘big.’”
Containing such a multi-skilled player takes multiple skull sessions, Calipari said.
“You better have a game plan A and B against him because he can go for 40,” the UK coach said during Monday’s SEC teleconference.
“It’s going to be a number of guys,” Payne said of the defense UK must use against Simmons. “It has to be Alex (Poythress), Marcus (Lee), maybe at times Isaiah (Briscoe).
“We want to throw a bunch of guys at him.”
One fascinating idea is Tyler Ulis, who is a foot shorter, harassing Simmons as the LSU freshman advances the ball up court.
“I’m sure that is one of the things Coach (Calipari) will look at,” Payne said.
The idea, Payne said, is to make Simmons work for every point, rebound and assist. The goal would be to wear him down. “Similar to Moody,” Payne said of Kentucky’s defense on Ole Miss star Stefan Moody on Saturday.
After UK beat Ole Miss, Calipari suggested that the hype surrounding Moody’s 25-point performance against the Cats last season inspired more defensive intensity.
Arguably no college player has excited media types more than Simmons this season.
“When you turn on the TV and see commentators talk about Ben Simmons, you can bet our guys are watching,” Payne said.
How do UK coaches want the UK players to react to the enthusiasm for Simmons?
“That I’m up for this challenge,” Payne said. “That we want multiple guys calling Coach (Calipari) saying, ‘I want to guard him.’”
Have any players made such a call? “A couple have,” said Payne, but declined to identify who.
Was Labissiere one of the players to call? “I have no comment,” he said.
But the UK freshman seemed unbothered by the many tributes to Simmons.
“He deserves everything he’s getting right now because he’s playing really well,” Labissiere said. “He’s been very dominant. He’s putting up some crazy stats.”
Simmons ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring (20.5 ppg), rebounding (13.1 rpg) and double-doubles (10). In his SEC debut Saturday at Vanderbilt, he scored 36 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
After the victory over Ole Miss, Calipari saluted how Ulis wanted to prove he was the best point guard on the floor. More UK players should play with that attitude, he said.
When asked if he’d take an I’m-better-than-Simmons attitude into the LSU game, Labissiere maintained his off-court good-naturedness.
Labissiere smiled brightly and said of Simmons, “He’s pretty good.”
Kentucky at LSU
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 11-2 (1-0 SEC), LSU 8-5 (1-0)
Series: Kentucky leads 86-25
Last meeting: Kentucky won 71-69 on Feb. 10, 2015, at LSU.