Poythress and Lee. Up and down. Hot and cold. Yin and yang. Bull market and bear market. Or as Kentucky Coach John Calipari has described the contributions his team gets from its front line: now and then.
Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee faded from consciousness in UK’s more-difficult-than-it-needed-to-be victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday. The contrast with their performances of three days earlier was striking.
Poythress went from a career-high 25 points at Alabama to one basket.
Lee flirted with a double-double at Alabama (eight points, 11 rebounds). He, too, made one shot against Mississippi State.
Of course, the feast at Alabama came four days after a famine at LSU: Poythress four points and five fouls; Lee five fouls in five minutes.
Before games, I just tell them we have to come out ready to play and make sure we’re ready to play, come out with energy. During games, I’m getting on guys. Just trying to get people to do their job.
To create more consistency from not only Poythress and Lee, but from the Kentucky team, Calipari has said the answer must come from within. He suggested point guard Tyler Ulis should stir his teammates to play better. Ulis should do this before and during games, not just afterward.
Ulis, who along with fellow guard Jamal Murray has been a steady performer, said he has tried.
“Before games, I just tell them we have to come out ready to play and make sure we’re ready to play, come out with energy,” Ulis said after UK beat Mississippi State. “During games, I’m getting on guys. Just trying to get people to do their job.”
Uneven performances suggest the teammates don’t always listen to Ulis. The player Calipari has said might be the best floor general he’s ever coached seemed to acknowledge that.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s got to get through eventually because as a team, we’re not going to win games if we play like that.”
A sense of urgency — UK’s coaches have called it playing “desperate” — comes and goes. “Some people take it for granted,” Ulis said of winning games, advancing to the NBA, etc.
To help make this point, Calipari said he used the current Powerball jackpot of $1 billion-plus as a teaching tool. The odds of winning the lottery are astronomically small, he said he told the players. But UK players have a much better chance of getting rich by making an NBA team. To do that will require consistent effort and production.
“We don’t have a lottery ticket,” Ulis said. “We have a gift (of basketball talent) that we need to use.
“It set in with me. Once it settles in with everybody, we’re just going to be a good team.”
Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland linked consistency to fight and effort.
“I think that a lot of that is just up to the players,” he said. “They’ve got to bring it every day, and when they do in practice and in the game, that’s where you get consistency.”
Calipari has not shared his thoughts on why the performances by Poythress and Lee fluctuate so wildly. Young teams are prone to uneven play, he said, although Poythress is a senior and Lee a junior.
Whenever he’s been asked why Poythress and Lee have been inconsistent, Calipari tells reporters to seek the answer from the players.
“Being big is a lot harder than you think,” he said. Backcourt players must help the “bigs” carry the load of rebounding, scoring and defending.
To hear players and coaches, there is no switch that can be turned on to immediately create consistency. To borrow a basketball term currently in vogue, it is a process.
“The key is repetition,” UK assistant coach John Robic said Monday. “That’s the biggest thing. Just working on it daily.”
Alabama assistant coach Bob Simon said much the same thing on the Southeastern Conference teleconference earlier Monday.
“It’s just repetition,” he said of the Tide’s search for consistency. “Finding the right combinations. Messing with lineups again and again to see which is going to (invite consistency).
“Every coach in the country is working on the same issues we’re working on.”
The 80-74 victory over Mississippi State proved a point Calipari has repeatedly made. UK can beat any team or lose to any team depending on its level of play. Going into Tuesday’s game, Kentucky had the best Ratings Percentage Index of any Southeastern Conference team (No. 9), while Mississippi State had the worst (No. 195).
Calipari credited Poythress for making four of four free throws in the final 48.5 seconds to save Kentucky from defeat against Mississippi State. But he suggested Poythress bore some responsibility for UK being in the precarious position of needing free throws made.
“In the guts of that game, he was not a factor,” Calipari said. “And when you’re that good, you need to be a factor.”
Even with its inconsistency, Kentucky remains Howland’s favorite to win the SEC.
“Obviously, Kentucky is not what they were a year ago . . . ,” the State coach said. “But they’re still the best team and the team to beat.”
Kentucky at Auburn
4 p.m. (ESPN)