Labissiere Gets a Dose of Demonstrated Performance

The man with the whistle – John Calipari – wielded his power on Monday.

Shifting around Kentucky’s lineups in practice, Coach Cal noticed Skal Labissiere was playing well alongside Alex Poythress.

But he wasn’t going to make a decision to start the freshman big man completely unilaterally. So Calipari turned to Tyler Ulis, his on-floor coach for a second opinion.

“He practiced yesterday great and I looked at Tyler,” Calipari said. “I just said, ‘I’m thinking about starting him tomorrow.’ He said, ‘Do it.’ I said, ‘Yep, then I will.’ And that’s what I did.”

So out strode Labissiere to center court to take the tip of Kentucky’s game at Florida on Tuesday night. Some immediately wondered whether the change was Calipari’s much-talked about tweak – it wasn’t – but Labissiere was only worried about taking advantage of his first start since Dec. 19.

“It meant a lot,” Labissiere said. “I found out yesterday that I was starting. Apparently had a pretty good practice and Coach Cal told me I was going to start. So I had to just get myself ready for it, and that’s what I did.”

Labissiere certainly looked ready, getting off to a blazing start. He had four points and three rebounds by the first media timeout, production on par with what has come to be the norm for entire games as Labissiere has become a role player for the Wildcats.

But over that time, Labissiere has continued to push for more.

“Just to keep working and whenever I get my chance to just go out there and take it,” Labissiere said. “That’s basically been it.”

Labissiere got his chance in Gainesville, Fla., and didn’t let it go. Playing only 15 minutes, he had 11 points, eight rebounds, a block and a steal to help lead No. 22/19 UK (22-8, 12-5 SEC) to an 88-79 win over the home-standing Gators (17-13, 8-9 SEC).

“Skal was terrific today,” Calipari said. “And again, he only played 15 minutes but if he can give us 15, 20 minutes like that, we’re pretty good.”

Of course, Labissiere showed off his feathery touch, especially running the pick-and-roll with Ulis, who again starred by posting 19 points and 11 assists.

“We run that a lot at practice, in games,” Labissiere said. “That’s something we always have and I love running with Tyler. He knows how to find me at the right spot at the right time. It’s pretty effective.”

But Labissiere’s solid night was about much more than that.

He scored on tough hook shots in the post. He embraced contact on box-outs. He grabbed contested rebounds. 

“I’m going to say this: He can do it,” Calipari said. “It’s very hard. I’d rather not do that. I’d rather do this other stuff. What he’s finding out – kind of like Jamal found out – that playing winning basketball—and most of these guys, what got you here to Kentucky isn’t going to get you to where you want to go. You gotta start doing things, you gotta work harder, you gotta be more focused.”

Labissiere now will work to make the kind of focus he showed in preparing for and playing in Tuesday’s game just the start of his late-season emergence.

“I mean, if he can do that every game we would love that, but from here on out just gotta build on it,” said Poythress, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds. “I mean, I think he can. He played well today. I’m proud of him.”

Belief on the part of his teammates and coach has never been an issue for Labissiere. The problem, at times, has been his own self-confidence.

To borrow a phrase from Calipari, Tuesday gave him a little fuel in the form of some demonstrated performance.

“It’s a huge confidence booster,” Labissiere said. “I just have to build on it, like Alex said. We don’t have a long season left, it’s almost tournament time, so hopefully I can do that in tournament time.”