UK Men's Basketball

Guards play big roles for Kentucky, Auburn

Kentucky Wildcats guard Jamal Murray (23) was pumped up as a run forced a Louisville timeout as Kentucky defeated Louisville on Dec. 26, 2015, in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky Wildcats guard Jamal Murray (23) was pumped up as a run forced a Louisville timeout as Kentucky defeated Louisville on Dec. 26, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Three-point shooting deserves attention when Kentucky plays at Auburn on Saturday.

Perimeter shooting gives Auburn a puncher’s chance against No. 14 Kentucky. For UK and three-point shooting, less can be more.

“You’re not going to win games just shooting jump shots,” UK Coach John Calipari said Thursday. “You just don’t. Not the big-time games.”

Kentucky managed to beat Mississippi State on Tuesday despite getting almost no offense from its front line. Then again, Mississippi State had the worst Ratings Percentage Index among the 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference. The Bulldogs are the only winless team in league play.

As of Thursday, Auburn was No. 114 in the RPI. That suggests Kentucky can win again with its three star guards doing the heavy lifting. But Calipari did not sound eager to see that again.

“We’ve got time,” the UK coach said about developing the semblance of a post presence. “We have a month, a month and a half. It’s not like we’re in the last week of the season.

“We’ve got to have guys who will make baskets around the goal.”

With freshman Skal Labissiere adjusting to college basketball slower than expected, the focus shifted to senior Alex Poythress and junior Marcus Lee. Each has enjoyed moments of being productive around the basket. But each has been inconsistent.

We’ve got time. We have a month, a month and a half. It’s not like we’re in the last week of the season. We’ve got to have guys who will make baskets around the goal.

John Calipari

For instance, Poythress and Lee were non-factors at LSU and against Mississippi State. But against Alabama last weekend, Poythress scored a career-high 25 points, while Lee nearly had a double-double (eight points, 11 rebounds).

When Poythress scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against his team, Eastern Kentucky Coach Dan McHale said, “He’s a pro when he wants to be. When that motor clicks, and he starts playing at the speed he played at tonight, he’s very tough to guard.”

That implied that Poythress sometimes does not want to be a pro.

“No, that’s not the implication,” said Poythress, who flashed annoyance. “I’m not worried about what other coaches say.”

Poythress acknowledged that he feels an added sense of responsibility to give Kentucky a post presence.

“Yeah, I understand that, especially when other players are struggling,” he said. “You have to demand it of yourself.”

Poythress dismissed the suggestion that his confidence has lagged. “My confidence is great,” he said.

But he admitted his surgically repaired left knee can be a problem. Poythress tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee in December of 2014.

“It’s sore here and there,” he said. “People tend to forget I hurt my knee.”

Poythress also acknowledged that the transition from complementary player in the past to lead role on this Kentucky team is a factor.

“It’s an adjustment,” he said. “It’s more responsibility and more pressure.”

Poythress was philosophical about those games when he is less productive.

“You just move on to the next game and try to improve . . . ,” he said. “As long as you’re winning games, you don’t worry too much.”

Foul trouble has hindered Lee. He fouled out against LSU and Mississippi State. In five of UK’s last six games, he’s had at least four fouls.

Calipari said Lee does not establish a post position early enough. Then he’s too slender to command a spot. “He weighs a buck 75,” the UK coach said. Kentucky lists Lee’s weight as 224 pounds.

On defense, a sense of embarrassment will cause Lee to foul rather than concede a basket, Calipari said.

“‘I’ll grab the guy so he doesn’t score,’” Calipari said as if interpreting Lee’s thinking. “It’s not football, son. . . . That was two points we could have scored in seven seconds. But it’s hard because it’s an embarrassing thing.”

They play really loose. They shoot balls. They spread the court. They beat you off the dribble.

John Calipari, talking about Auburn

Meanwhile, the three-point shot is prominent in Auburn’s offense. Going into this week, the Tigers had taken more and made more three-point shots than any other SEC team in league play.

Point guard Kareem Canty, a transfer from Marshall, leads the way. He ranks eighth nationally in making an average of 3.6 three-pointers.

“He’s seeing a lot of attention . . . ,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said of Canty. “He gets trapped a lot, and that can be disruptive.”

As the cautious coach, Calipari was wary.

“They play really loose,” he said of Auburn. “They shoot balls. They spread the court. They beat you off the dribble.”

And of Canty, Calipari said, “He’s letting it go. If he has a big night, we’ll probably say, ‘Who’s next on the schedule.’”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Saturday

Kentucky at Auburn

When: 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 13-3 (3-1 SEC), Auburn 7-8 (1-3)

Series: Kentucky leads 91-17

Last meeting: Kentucky won 91-67 on March 14, 2015, at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

SEC standings

SEC

All

Texas A&M

4-0

14-2

Kentucky

3-1

13-3

LSU

3-1

10-6

Arkansas

3-1

9-7

South Carolina

2-1

15-1

Ole Miss

2-2

12-4

Georgia

2-2

9-5

Florida

2-2

10-6

Alabama

1-2

10-5

Missouri

1-2

8-8

Vanderbilt

1-3

9-7

Tennessee

1-3

8-8

Auburn

1-3

7-8

Mississippi State

0-3

7-8

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