Andrew Harrison is averaging 11.8 points and 3.8 assists in SEC play. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Imagine if UK ever played a game in which each one of its talented players played to his vast potential.
What if the Julius Randle who dominated Michigan State in the second half and the Willie Cauley-Stein who blocked nine shots against Boise State manned the Wildcat frontcourt?
What if the Andrew Harrison who scored 26 against Tennessee and the Aaron Harrison who poured in 28 vs. Robert Morris were on the floor together?
What if John Calipari could sub the Alex Poythress who went on a one-man 7-0 on Tuesday against Texas A&M for the the James Young who had 26 points against Mississippi State?
The prospect is certainly a tantalizing one, but it's not realistic.
"Everybody's not going to have a good game every game and people have to understand that," Andrew Harrison said. "But at the same time, it's not always about scoring points and stuff like that. It's about playing hard. If everyone plays hard, we're really tough to beat."
In both games and practice, it's all about effort. The Cats can't let that effort be affected by anything. Not the last play, the last game and especially not the "clutter" and outside voices to which Coach Cal has so often referred of late.
"Whether it's my point guard, whether it's James, this stuff is all game-to-game with these guys," Calipari said. "And if they get caught up in one game, you take your eye off the ball, which is the process of getting better as an individual and -- more importantly right now for us -- as a team."
No. 14 Kentucky (14-4, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) began the season atop the polls. Billed as one of the most talent-rich teams in recent memory, dominance wasn't talked about as a possibility so much as a certainty.
Instead, the Cats have had their moments and even a signature win over Louisville, but are only now beginning to find a rhythm.
"Other teams are well ahead of us right now," Calipari said, "either because they've been veteran teams and they're way ahead of us as a team, or they just needed each other more than we thought we needed each other. So we haven't made the strides as a team that we need. But we have made strides."
To continue to make those strides, UK will need Cauley-Stein to round back into form.
The sophomore had a remarkable December, blocking shots on pace with Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. But over his last three games, his production and minutes have plummeted. He's averaging just one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 15.3 minutes during that stretch and backup Dakari Johnson has filled the void with his best stretch of play this season.
"Again, he's playing behind Willie, and Willie's really playing well," Calipari said. "You're not gonna get many minutes then. But Willie didn't play well, so now what are you gonna do with your minutes? Well, he went in and said, 'You should be playing me instead of Willie.' "
If Thursday's practice is any indication, Cauley-Stein won't be able to be kept off the floor. After working out individually late on Wednesday, Cauley-Stein looked like a different player the next day.
"It was good to see him back to instead of avoiding everything, creating and doing the stuff that we've all seen him do," Calipari said. "You go down that road and you start thinking the wrong way -- this game is more mental than anything else. And for him, he got away from what he was doing to make himself and set himself apart."
After playing with him on Thursday, Andrew Harrison stated in no uncertain terms his belief that Cauley-Stein will be back in a big way when UK takes on Georgia (10-7, 4-1 SEC) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network). If he is, Harrison knows what that can mean.
"He's probably the best center in the country and we need him to be as good as we can be," Harrison said.
UK will certainly need all hands on deck against the visiting Bulldogs. Georgia has won four of five to open SEC play, taking down Missouri on the road, Arkansas at home and only losing at Florida.
"They're playing exactly how they have to play to win," Calipari said. "Their guards are scoring. They're shooting the 3 when they need it. They're plus-10 rebounds in our league right now."
Guards Charles Mann (13.1 points per game) and Kenny Gaines (12.0) lead a balanced scoring attack, but Georgia remains simply "the next challenge up" in Calipari's eyes, a measuring stick for UK's progress. He knows exactly the things he'll be looking for.
"When we really, truly start playing for each other," Calipari said. "Where we have no ball-stoppers on offense. That ball moves or you make a play. On defense, that we play an entire possession and we show energy for our team, not just when we're guarding the ball. When we're not guarding the ball. That we block out on an errant shot with 0.2 seconds to go, because we're gonna finish the possession."
It's unlikely all those things will happen together on Saturday, but the Cats are working to get there eventually.
"When we get there, you'll see this team take a quantum leap," Calipari said.
Polson to have high-school jersey retired Friday
UK will take a break from its Georgia preparations to celebrate with Jarrod Polson as he has his jersey retired at West Jessamine High School on Friday night.
"I told them yesterday we were all going to go and be there for him, and they went crazy for him," Calipari said. "And what a great gesture for their high school to do."
Polson averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds as a senior, leading his team to a Sweet Sixteen berth and finishing his career as the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,884 points.
Even so, it's an honor Polson didn't see coming.
"I was pretty shocked," Polson said. "I didn't really know they do it actually while you're in college or anything like that so when they told me I was pretty excited and my family was pretty happy about it so I think it'll be a good night."
Alex Poythress had 16 points, five rebounds and two blocks in UK's win over Texas A&M on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Caught in somewhat of a lull and on the verge allowing another opponent to hang around, UK needed a jolt.
The Wildcats led Texas A&M by just four points early in the second half after building a double-digit advantage before halftime. The Rupp Arena crowd was anxious, surely anticipating another nip-and-tuck finish.
It was then, however, that UK turned to a source of energy that has gone from unlikely to expected within the last two months: Alex Poythress.
"He made plays like, 'How did he make that play?' " John Calipari said. "And that's how we got a little gap."
He scored the game's next seven points, the last three coming on an open-floor and-one that drew a big reaction from his teammates and even a smile from the normally stoic Poythress. After an A&M 3 briefly cut the lead to eight, Poythress delivered a gravity-defying dunk to give the No. 14/14 Cats (14-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) a double-digit lead they wouldn't relinquish en route to a 68-51 win over the Aggies (12-6, 3-2 SEC).
"We wanted to get the game and keep it going and stretch out the lead," said Poythress, who finished with a season-high 16 points. "We were playing great defense. We just needed a couple stops."
Not long ago, Poythress would have been among the last players expected to step up in that moment. Still battling the inconsistency that plagued him as a freshman, Poythress teased with his incredible potential but far too infrequently for him to be relied on regularly.
Over the last month, that's changed completely.
It began in preparation, which prompted Coach Cal to make occasional mention of Poythress's performance in practices. In December, the results began to trickle in on the floor. There was the solid six-point, eight-rebound effort and North Carolina, the seven points he scored in UK's best win of the season over Louisville. Though he wasn't blowing anyone away with his statistics, UK just seemed to be better when Poythress was in the game.
Meanwhile, Poythress was building his confidence brick by brick.
"I can't really speak for him, but just what I see when I'm guarding him he's more assertive, sure of himself and playing with a lot of confidence and just attacking and not thinking so much," Julius Randle said.
With newfound self-assurance, Poythress has become the sixth man UK can always count on to deliver, even if it doesn't always mean scoring 11 straight points for his team.
"I'm just trying to bring energy off the bench and just play my role and do what I can to help the team win," Poythress said.
Poythress has evolved into a 6-foot-8, 239-pound terror Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy called "dominant" after his team lost in Rupp Arena. Coach Cal had a more violent though no less complimentary description.
"Mentally, Alex thinks he's going to kill you, so he will," Calipari said. "Last year that's not how Alex was thinking."
In five games of SEC play, Poythress is averaging 10.6 points and at least one rim-rattling dunk per game. On defense, Poythress has gone from a nonfactor to a versatile weapon capable of guarding both post and perimeter players. During that same stretch to open conference play, he has 10 blocks after registering two against Texas A&M. He had just 14 his entire freshman year.
"Alex, I keep saying, Alex, what you're seeing is what I'm seeing in practice, which is like, holy cow," Calipari said. "I mean, he's just dominating, making his free throws, making jump shots."
Randle has had an up-close view of that dominance, as the two athletic forwards most often matchup with one another in practice. He's ecstatic to see the player he has to deal with in practice show up in games.
"We all see the work he puts in and just to finally see him break through and play great, I couldn't be more happy for him," said Randle, who had his 11th double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "It's just real exciting because if he does that we know our team just goes to another level."
That's perhaps no truer than when opponents deploy the zone defenses the Cats are likely to see throughout the season.
Normally, the term "zone buster" is reserved for a knockdown outside shooter, but Poythress proved to be just that on Tuesday night. Against A&M's 2-3, Poythress roamed the baseline. Waiting for either a pass and a chance to attack the rim or an offensive-rebounding opportunity, he was constantly ready to pounce.
"He's just so explosive," Randle said. "Our guards can penetrate and shoot or they can penetrate and kick to him and he'll score the ball and dunk the ball or whatever. So it's a huge help."
As much of a help as that may be, Coach Cal is much more concerned with attitude, mentality and hard work when it comes to any of his players. After all, those are the reasons for Poythress's transformation. Now, Calipari is looking to apply those lessons elsewhere.
"It's kind of like chipping away at a rock," Calipari said in reference to Derek Willis. "You keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and then all of a sudden it's been weeks and it's been months and there's one hit and it splits and you split the rock and you made it. You're over the hump."
Poythress may appear to be over that hump, but Calipari still knows there's only one way for anyone to stay on the right side of it.
"It's never good enough," Calipari said. "You're always hungry. You're always humble, but you're always hungry to get better. The minute you're satisfied, you start going the wrong way."
Not to worry, Poythress isn't.
"Just keep on working hard," he said. "We've got an off day tomorrow. Just come in Thursday prepared and ready to practice, have a good practice then and a good practice Friday and just translate to the game."
James Young is averaging 14.2 points 17 games into his freshman season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
James Young had never really thought much about his shooting stroke. Before he got to Kentucky he had always, well, just shot the basketball.
Now, Young is more aware of his mechanics. He can feel when he doesn't keep his shoulders forward. He knows when he jumps or lands or just one foot.
"I think about it a lot recently, how I'm shooting," Young said. "I've just gotta clear my mind a little bit and just let it go."
It's not that Young has been ineffective. The freshman guard is averaging 14.2 points and getting to the foul line nearly five times per game.
"I know he's not shooting at the percentage that he would like, but he's putting the ball in the basket," assistant coach John Robic said. "He's just creative in the way he (scores)."
Nonetheless, the Rochester Hills, Mich., native with a reputation as a knockdown shooter is shooting just 32.5 percent from 3-point range as No. 14/14 UK (13-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) prepares to host Texas A&M (12-5, 3-1 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday. The tougher competition he's facing at the college level has something to do with that.
"They play a lot more defense than they did back in high school, so it'll probably affect me a little bit," Young said. "I've just gotta stay confident in my shot."
So far, losing confidence has been no issue for Young. Though the shots haven't always fallen, Young has not stopped shooting. That's the way John Calipari wants it.
"He gave me the green light to shoot so whenever I'm open I'm just going to keep shooting it," Young said. "I've just gotta knock them down."
To do that, Young needs to strike a balance behind clear-headed confidence and awareness of his mechanics. There's only one way to get there.
"Get in the gym and practice," Robic said.
Young is working on that, but he's making plenty of plays in the meantime. He made 2-of-5 3s on Saturday as UK shot 7-of-16 (43.8 percent) from deep in a win over Tennessee. Young also made a game-tying 3 near the end of overtime at Arkansas after missing one earlier in the same possession.
"The shot that he made at Arkansas, the one that Andrew (Harrison) made at Arkansas, were big shots, and it showed us something," Robic said.
Young, however, doesn't need to hit 3s to score. More than 54 percent of his points this season have come on either shots from inside the arc or at the line, oftentimes in unconventional ways that remind Robic -- who filled in for Coach Cal at Monday's pregame press conference -- of a former player now playing for the Charlotte Bobcats.
"He reminds me of the kid we had at Memphis, Chris Douglas-Roberts," Robic said. "Just a little unorthodox. It doesn't look like it's going in, but somehow it finds a way to go in."
Young expects to continue making those shots, but he's also challenging himself to find a more consistent form from outside.
"It's just about getting better every day," Young said. "That's what I just came here to do."
John Robic filled in for John Calipari on the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference this morning. Read what the assistant coach had to say about an upcoming matchup with Texas A&M and Saturday's comeback win over Tennessee.
On UK's matchups this week ... "We got two home games coming up this week, Texas A&M on Tuesday and Georgia on Saturday. I'm impressed really with both teams and what their new players are doing for them. I like the physical nature of both teams. Right now, both teams are playing very, very well. We're going to have to play a heck of a game in both outings."
On the similarities between Texas A&M's Jamal Jones and Elston Turner ... "You know what, that's a great point. Really like Jamal Jones. It seems like he should be averaging more than 12 points a game because it seems like every time he shoots it it goes in. He's really a smooth player, really good with the ball. He can create his own shot. He's a very shooter off the catch. It gives them that No. 1 scoring option for their team. He's really more of a three than he is a four. Sometimes he has to play that four spot, but it can create matchup problems because he can draw you away from the basket."
On Texas A&M leading the league in defensive field-goal percentage ... "They mix things up defensively between their man-to-man and zone. I really like (Alex) Caruso as a defender. Really anticipates well. They play solidly defensively. Not a whole lot of risk factors in trying to steal balls. They wall up really well in the post and make you take tough shots in and around the basket. We're going to have to do a good job of penetrating, being ready to shoot and hopefully do a little bit of damage on the offensive glass." On rebounding issues against Tennessee ... "You had two 6-8 kids that weigh about 275 pounds and they had their way with us. They were space-eaters inside that were really, really physical. I believe it's the first time all year we've been out-rebounded and we got our butts kicked on the glass, especially offensively. We showed that tape to our players yesterday before practice because we were plus-13 going into the game rebounding-wise. We were fortunate to come away with the win. There were a lot of those plays though there were probably two or three, sometimes even four offensive rebounds per possession. But we have to do a better job keeping guys off the glass for sure." On why Willie Cauley-Stein struggled against Tennessee ... "If you watch the film, once they made contact he didn't fight back. He had a big height advantage over them. He just has to get down and be physical and make the first blow with contact and then use his size to rebound it above the rim."
On Dakari Johnson's improvement ... "Well, we were really happy for Dakari. That's probably the best he's played and he's realistic about it. There are some games where it's a tough matchup for him, when the post players are a little smaller and thinner or quicker and can take you out away from the basket. He's really gotten in the best shape he's ever been in. He's running the floor well. He used his size the other day. That was a great matchup game for him. Defensively, he was pretty solid. Set good screens offensively. But how did he develop it? He's been in the gym getting extra work in and making sure he's doing extra conditioning and just focusing on the things that he can do to help us win a few more games."