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Veteran Mays not shying away from leadership responsibilities

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Julius Mays had 14 points, five assists and two steals in UK's exhibition win over Transylvania on Monday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Julius Mays had 14 points, five assists and two steals in UK's exhibition win over Transylvania on Monday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Following Kentucky's exhibition win over Northwood last week, Willie Cauley-Stein made the comment that the Wildcats were still trying to find a vocal leader. Players would speak up in spurts, but he believed the team was still in the process of uncovering a constant presence in that area.

Julius Mays might just be that guy.

"He's not afraid to be vocal," head coach John Calipari said. "He'll talk to the guys defensively on the court, where they should be, what they should have done."

Mays was a key cog in the Wildcats' 74-28 victory over Transylvania in their final exhibition. He scored 14 points and hit four 3-pointers, three of which came in a two-minute, 26-second stretch that saw UK extend its lead from a relatively tenuous 12 points to an unquestionably comfortable 25.

His outside shooting figures to be important to Kentucky all season, but it's his leadership that makes him indispensable to a young, developing team.

"He talks to all of us when we get down on ourselves and tells us to be ready," said sophomore Ryan Harrow, who made all five of his field goals attempts en route to a 12-point, four-assist evening. "He's just been playing for so long that he knows what to do."

It hasn't come at UK, but Mays has all kinds of experience. He has played in 88 college games and made 34 starts in three seasons at North Carolina State and Wright State. The four freshmen and two sophomores among the other six players who averaged double-digit minutes in Kentucky's two exhibitions have played a combined 69 college games with 10 starts.

"Julius is very important, especially him having a lot of college experience," said 15-point scorer Nerlens Noel. "He brings it to the team and he's a very good vocal leader, helping us with all the little things because he's been around."

Mays has been through the ups and downs of a college season, but just as importantly, he's been on the receiving end of college coaching.

"We got a lot of young guys that have never been coached the way they're being coached by Coach Cal," Mays said. "They've been that guy on the team, so it's different. I've been around college for a while and I know what it takes and I know how coaches are, so for me to have the experience I have and be out there with those guys I think is good for us."

Calipari is getting after his four freshmen in a way they've never seen. Mays understands that all Coach Cal is trying to do, no matter how loudly he goes about it, is make his players better, both individually and as a team. He's passing that understanding on to the youngsters.

For all the times Mays is there to help pick his teammates up, he isn't afraid to get after them when the situation warrants. On one occasion on Monday night, Mays created a loose ball and Alex Poythress failed to hit the ground in pursuit as he should have. Mays told him about it.

"He knows it wasn't anything personal because he's like my little brother, so whatever I say to him it's not taken like I'm taking a shot at him," Mays said. "I expect him, if I don't dive on the ball, to get on me the same way."

Unlike his bigger and more athletic teammates, Mays isn't going to be getting any above-the-rim blocked shots, but he's just as important to UK's defensive efforts. Noel, Cauley-Stein, Poythress and even Archie Goodwin provide the basket protection that allows the Cats to play aggressive defense and close hard on any and all shooters, but the communication that Mays provides is what makes it work.

After UK allowed 18 points and all three of Transy's 3-pointers in the game's first 13:49 and looked discombobulated and disorganized at times, the Cats' defense bowed up. The Pioneers wouldn't score another point before halftime and managed just 10 in the final 20 minutes.

The only tense moments in a second half during which UK outscored Transy by 37 was when Mays missed a 3-pointer and landed on a Pioneer. His knee buckled and he stayed on the floor for a few minutes before hobbling to the locker room for further evaluation. The previously energetic crowd of 20,762 fell silent, but fears were eventually eased when Mays walked back to the bench. He was diagnosed with a right leg strain.

"It's always scary when one of your teammates goes down, whether they just fall," Cauley-Stein said. "You never know. We're glad that he's good and he's healthy. It's real scary when anybody goes down and with Julius being one of our leaders on the team, it kind of gets you down at that second."

His official status is day-to-day, but Mays expects to be ready when UK opens the regular season against Maryland later this week in Brooklyn's Barclays Arena.

"It will be OK," Mays said. "The doctors checked it. It's nothing serious so I'm not worried about it. I'll be ready to play on Friday."

That's good, because Mays is certainly going to be needed against the Terrapins.

No one on the roster better understands the level of competition the Cats are about to face better than Mays. In characteristic fashion, he'll be imparting that awareness to his teammates.

"We got to be focused," Mays said. "We got to take everything serious. Obviously Maryland is going to be a totally different team than the two teams we have exhibition games with. We've just got to be ready to come out and play with high energy and play as a team and I think we'll be fine."

Mays and the Cats have no intention of losing either the season opener or the Duke game that follows, but Coach Cal is prepared for the possibility. Now is the time for finding an identity and improving. Treating winning and losing like life and death comes in a few months.

"It's winning or learning, it's not winning or losing," Calipari said. "It's all learning now, because by January we've got to be right. So you use November and December - and the only way you can really learn is play against good teams."

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