UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Kentucky hardly alone in seeking a pivot man

Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere (1) dunked against Auburn during the second half on Jan. 16. Auburn won 75-70.
Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere (1) dunked against Auburn during the second half on Jan. 16. Auburn won 75-70. Associated Press

There’s a reason they are called — or at least used to be called — pivot men. The team mechanism revolved around this player, who carried the apt label of center.

Kentucky is hardly alone this season in not having such a player. It’s a dying breed.

“It’s rare to find a kid who will go to the post and bang,” said Terry Tippett, who tried in vain to make future UK big man Skal Labissiere such a player in high school.

“It’s rare to see a kid actually practice moves” in the low post, ESPN analyst Jay Williams said, “especially ‘bigs’ with their backs to the basket.”

Added Seth Greenberg, “The problem is it’s not in vogue.”

So, what happened? Where have you gone, Tim Duncan? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Bill Walton? Wilt Chamberlain? A few old-timers (blush) would like to see an up-and-under move or a baby hook.

Len Elmore, who was such a player for Maryland in the 1970s and a first-round NBA pick, offered a catchy theory.

“It’s not sexy,” he said. “For the most part, you’re not going to get on SportsCenter’s top 10. For so many guys, it’s all about the dunk, the alley oop. Very rarely do we talk about good footwork.”

Luke Kornet, a 7-footer for Vanderbilt, agreed.

“Nowadays, it’s all about shooting threes and highlight dunks and running in transition … ,” he said. “It’s kind of getting a bad rap with everyone thinking spreading out is the only thing that works.”

Tippett added a factor that sounded like something UK Coach John Calipari would say. “Most (players) want to avoid contact,” he said. “They’re not scared. They just go where it’s easier.”

Theories abound.

How many coaches are former pivot men? To me, that’s part of the issue. There’s not a lot of people who can teach it.

Former pivot man Len Elmore

Greenberg said that there simply aren’t a lot of players with the bulk and height to be effective low post players. Williams said the role models players mostly try to emulate are Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. Not a center in the bunch.

Big men from Europe helped popularize a face-the-basket style. The Golden State Warriors have made so-called “small ball” trendy.

Elmore added a provocative thought.

“How many coaches are former pivot men?” he asked. “To me, that’s part of the issue. There’s not a lot of people who can teach it.”

Still, teams like Kentucky have reason to continue to try to establish a low-post player. In recent seasons, UK got great mileage from such players as DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.

LSU Coach Johnny Jones credits the addition of strongman Craig Victor as a reason his team improved. Victor brings a presence around the basket and eases the defensive attention on star freshman Ben Simmons.

“I think he’s elevated Ben’s game,” Jones said.

Such a player can also inflate his own wealth.

Said Elmore: “When you’re 7-foot or 7-1, you can make a living and then some by learning to play with your back to the basket.”

History repeats

Watching UK freshman Skal Labissiere’s productive play at Arkansas gave Terry Tippett a feeling of history repeating.

On the high school level, Tippett tried for several years to make Labissiere an effective low-post player. Finally, he moved the player to the high post area where he could face the basket.

That seemed to be the exact same scenario that’s played out at Kentucky this season. UK Coach John Calipari tried and tried to make Labissiere a low-post player. Then at Arkansas, Labissiere faced the basket.

“Exactly,” Tippett said.

The sheer size of a 6-11 player compels coaches to try to fashion a low-post dominator.

“But,” Tippett said, “if he can’t do it, he can’t do it.”

An even greater truth moved coaches like Tippett and Calipari to accept Labissiere as a face-the-basket player.

“Coaches want to win,” Tippett said.

Labissiere’s jump shot is “a thing of beauty,” he said.

Better still, the move away from the low post seemed to have a freeing effect on Labissiere.

“That’s the most energetic and aggressive I’ve seen him,” Tippett said.

Firing line

The SEC Network telecast of the Arkansas-Missouri game this month included an unusual and intriguing scene. During the second half, analyst and former UK player John Pelphrey interviewed Arkansas Athletics Director Jeff Long.

In 2011, Long fired Pelphrey as the Razorbacks’ coach. And there the two men were, sitting side by side, for several minutes in the second half of the game.

“It wasn’t awkward for me, and I hope it wasn’t for John,” Long told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Along with play-by-play man Tom Hart, the men talked about Long stepping down as chair of the College Football Playoff committee.

“John’s a good man, and I think he’s a good coach,” Long said after the game. “I don’t feel any animosity toward John.”

Pelphrey, who was one of UK’s Unforgettables in the early 1990s, had a 69-59 record in four seasons as Arkansas coach.

“Sometimes situations don’t work,” Long said. “I think John will be a head coach again.”

Pelphrey, who served two non-consecutive terms as a Florida assistant for Billy Donovan, hasn’t decided what he’ll do in the future. He said he’s enjoyed being an analyst on telecasts.

“I may keep doing this, who knows?” he said of TV work when asked by the Democrat Gazette. “But I think I’d like to try coaching again at some point. It would need to be the right place. A situation that I feel works for me.”

Limits to objectivity

Former UK player John Pelphrey made his debut as a college basketball analyst for the SEC Network at Kentucky on Jan. 2. UK defeated Mississippi.

During a break in the action, one of UK Athletics’ marketing people asked Pelphrey if he wanted to go on the court and be the “Y.”

I said, ‘John, your jersey is hanging in the rafters. You can go out and be the ‘Y.’

Lead announcer Tom Hart to analyst John Pelphrey

“John looked at me and said, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if that’s a good idea; I’m supposed to be impartial,’” lead announcer Tom Hart recalled.

“I said, ‘John, your jersey is hanging in the rafters. You can go out and be the ‘Y.’ But I really appreciated that he was putting so much thought into it.”

Handling success

In winning 79-45 at Georgia, Texas A&M enjoyed its most lopsided road victory in league play since joining the Southwest Conference in 1915. The 5-0 SEC record going into last week was the Aggies’ best start in conference play in 30 years.

So how was Texas A&M handling this newfound success?

“We’re handling success fairly well,” Coach Billy Kennedy said.

Kennedy acknowledged that he’s had to deal with “issues.” But, overall, Texas A&M was smoothly navigating its way through the season to this point.

“It’s new territory for us,” Kennedy said of handling the success. “Some of it is a work in progress for us. We’ll find out.”

Handling adversity

Arguably, no SEC team faces more adversity this season than Missouri. While already in year two of a rebuilding process, the Tigers recently announced self-imposed penalties in response to rule violations dating back to Frank Haith’s time as coach.

No matter how many games Missouri wins, there will be no play in the SEC Tournament nor NCAA nor NIT events.

Maybe we can spoil somebody else’s season.

Missouri Coach Kim Anderson

“It’s hard for young men,” Coach Kim Anderson said. “I’ve tried to be more positive, and talk about refocusing goals. And maybe we can spoil somebody else’s season. Maybe we can win a game down the line that means something to somebody else.”

Cheer for NCAA

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes applauded the NCAA move to relax its rules about college players and the NBA Draft. The NCAA will allow players to participate in an invitation-only NBA Combine and try out for one pro team before deciding whether or not to withdraw their names from the draft.

UK Coach John Calipari cheered the move as a way to help players make better-informed decisions about the NBA Draft. Barnes agreed.

“So many kids put their name in with no chance of being drafted,” Barnes said. “They should come back (to college) one or two years, maybe three. …

“Whatever we can do to help them not make those mistakes, I’m all for it.”

Jeer for NCAA

South Carolina Coach Frank Martin saw the NCAA relaxation of rules about college players and the NBA Draft as inadequate. He said the delay leaves college coaches in a lurch if a talented player leaves college in late May.

“You lose a player you’re not replacing in May and June,” Martin said.

The South Carolina coach lamented how college baseball, football and women’s basketball have worked out ways for players to make draft decisions while coaches have time to recruit replacements. Recruits in those sports commit to college for multiple years.

“We’re the only sport where figuring out a common sense solution continues to be an adventure,” he said.

Martin offered what he presumably thinks is such a solution.

“I’m all for guys who want to be pros to declare out of high school,” he said. “That’s where my thought always has been and will continue to be.”

Free advice

Auburn officials recoiled when big man Cinmeon Bowers said that Kentucky was not as good this season as last season.

Never mind that many people, including UK Coach John Calipari, have said this. Auburn did not want Bowers giving Kentucky bulletin board material.

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl suggested that reporters not publicize possibly inflammatory comments made by players.

“You guys are always trying to give me advice on how to coach,” Pearl said, “so I have to give you advice about writing.”

Bleeding Blue

Fans of Kentucky and Florida will stage their annual blood donation competition this week. The Big Blue Slam will be Monday through Friday.

UK fans can donate in Rupp Arena on Thursday. If form holds, donors will also get a chance to shoot around.

The Kentucky Blood Center’s donor centers will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day this week. Blood drive locations can be found at

In addition to potentially winning the competition, donors will receive a Slam T-shirt and a chance to win a pair of tickets to the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball South Regional at the Yum Center in Louisville.

Besides the competition (UK fans lead 4-3), the Big Blue Slam helps build up the winter blood supply, “which has been hurt by lower than expected donor turnouts because of cold and flu season and recent winter weather,” Martha Osborne, executive director of marketing and recruitment, said in a news release.

The Kentucky Blood Center’s five donor centers will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day this week.

Blood drive locations can be found at

Happy birthday

To Rupp’s Runt Larry Conley. He turned 72 on Friday. … To Perry Stevenson. He turned 29 on Saturday. … To Kevin O’Neill. The former Tennessee coach turns 59 on Sunday (today). … To Chris Mills. The only UK player to post a triple-double turns 46 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton