UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky-Tennessee notes: What UK wants from Skal is better rebounding and defense, not scoring

Kentucky guard Jamal Murray (23) blocked a shot by Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. as Skal Labissiere tried to help Saturday night.
Kentucky guard Jamal Murray (23) blocked a shot by Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. as Skal Labissiere tried to help Saturday night. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Here’s a startling statistic: Freshman Skal Labissiere has not grabbed a rebound in Kentucky’s last three games.

That throws a wet blanket — make that a water-logged blanket — on the enthusiasm generated by the UK big man’s recent scoring revival.

“We’re not worried about Skal offensively,” said assistant coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for John Calipari at a Monday news conference. “Our deal with Skal (is) ‘Will you fight defensively to keep your man in front? Block shots? Will you rebound?’

“If he does that, he’ll play as many minutes as he can handle. It’s really simple.”

Labissiere last grabbed a rebound at Arkansas on Jan. 21. He’s played 36 minutes since then without grabbing a rebound.

The game at Kansas included what is becoming a familiar recurrence. Labissiere had his hands on a rebound. But an opponent ripped the ball out of his grasp.

When asked what was the answer to this problem, Payne said, “There is no (easy) answer.”

Labissiere works regularly in practice on maintaining possession of rebounds, Payne said.

“He just has to go out and do it (in games) and have confidence doing it … ,” Payne said. “It’s somewhat mental. I think he’ll get over it. It’s important he get over it.

“It’s a reluctance to make contact first. We have a philosophy that the aggressor wins.”

Identity crisis

Payne said UK’s coaches have been “harping” on players in recent weeks. The message the harpies want to get across: You are not that good.

“We’re not one of the most dominant teams like last year,” he said. “We can beat anybody, but on the flip side, don’t overlook (any opponent). Don’t take anybody for granted.”

That includes Tennessee, a sub-.500 team at 10-11, a team outside the RPI’s top 100 and UK’s opponent Tuesday.

The loss at Auburn on Jan. 16 served to reinforce the message that UK was not that good.

“Definitely, there has been a difference,” Payne said of UK’s play post-Auburn. “More focus defensively. There has been a desperateness about us.”

The Cats should hear the clock ticking, Payne said. The season is “coming to the end,” he said. “It’s time for us to establish who we are.”

Poythress the predictable

After the loss at Kansas, Calipari said Alex Poythress was reluctant to go to the top of the key and also reluctant to shoot from there. This would counter Kansas’ move to a triangle-and-two defense (with the two guarding Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray).

Instead, Poythress stood “32 feet out,” said Calipari, who perhaps exaggerated for effect. “I’m, like, ‘Move in and shoot the ball.’ He missed it so badly, it was demoralizing.”

While saying he had “no idea” why Poythress was reluctant to get into a position UK had worked on, Payne said:

“Alex wants to go baseline and spin to the middle. (But) now it’s become predictable. We want him to take the middle first. Then, if you want to spin back to the baseline, that’s fine.”

The key, Payne said, is to be able to dictate from the middle of the floor.

Opportunity for UK ‘bigs’

Tennessee’s under-sized team gives UK’s much-maligned “bigs” a chance to do well. The Vols start no one taller than 6-foot-5.

Opponents have out-rebounded the team for the season (38.8-40.8) and in SEC play (38.0-40.0). The Vols haven’t out-rebounded an opponent since Jan. 6.

The game at TCU last weekend showed how dependent Tennessee can be on three-point shooting. The Vols made eight of 16 three-pointers in the first half and led by 14 at halftime. Then the Vols missed all 15 three-point shots in the second half and lost 75-63.

“I think Tennessee is a very scrappy team,” said Payne, not wishing to belittle the relatively little Vols. “They’re not very big. But they fight. … This is a game our ‘bigs,’ they need to step up and play well.”

UK Coach Rick Barnes?

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes acknowledged that he had been approached when Kentucky was looking to hire a basketball coach in the past. He decided not to pursue the job.

“I was in a situation at Texas where … working with (Athletics Director) DeLoss Dodds is where I had hoped to finish my career,” Barnes said. “And I wasn’t looking to go anywhere else at all. I really wasn’t.

“But the fact is, it didn’t work out that way, and I think I’m right where God has put me, and I’m excited about that.”

Punter shoots, scores

Converted point guard Kevin Punter leads Tennessee in scoring — and ranks second among SEC players — with an average of 23 points.

That’s more than double his 10.3-point scoring average of last season, and reflects a dramatic change in his shooting mechanics.

“He shot the ball behind his head from the left side of his head,” Barnes said. “With his elbow almost literally pointing right instead of pointing to the rim.

“So we talked about moving the ball from behind his head to in front of his head, to the right side of his face. … He just really put the time in. Hours and hours in the gym working on that, and he’s reaping the benefits of it.”

Etc.

▪ Barnes on criticism of Calipari’s coaching: “That is jealousy. People who try to say that he is not a good coach border on ignorant.

▪ Brad Nessler, Sean Farnham and sideline reporter Shannon Spake will call the game for ESPN.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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