The silence in Rupp Arena said it all.
As Julius Mays crumpled to the floor in front of Kentucky’s bench holding his right knee, the hush of 20,762 fans illustrated just how important Julius Mays is to John Calipari’s greenest UK team.
Just a few minutes after drilling three 3-pointers to open up an uncomfortable first half, Mays fell awkwardly to the floor after he landed on a Transylvania player and his knee buckled. The fifth-year graduate student sat on the floor for more than a minute as he rubbed his leg and trainers evaluated him before being helped back to the locker room.
“Anytime you hurt your knee, your first thing is, ‘Oh, my ACL or MCL,’ so yeah, I was scared at first, just the way I landed,” Mays said.
Rest assured, UK fans, Mays is going to be OK.
He returned to the court with a couple minutes left in the game to watch his team put the final touches on a dominating second half. Ultimately, Kentucky ended up cruising past Division-III Transylvania 74-28, but it was easily the scariest moment of the game after an unnerving first half.
“It will be OK,” Mays said after the game. “The doctors checked it. It’s nothing serious so I’m not worried about it. I’ll be ready to play on Friday.”
Playing 24 minutes, the Wright State transfer performed ‘steady’ as he dished out five assists and had two steals against only one turnover while scoring 14 points on 4-of-8 shooting from long range.
Mays was officially diagnosed with a right leg strain and is listed as day-to-day. Kentucky expects to have him Friday night for the regular-season opener against Maryland in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Cats will certainly need his veteran leadership after he sparked a dominating 47-10 second half Monday with three early 3-pointers. Mays finished with 14 points, five assists and four treys before leaving the game, but Calipari said it was his “steady” play and willingness to lead that made the biggest difference Monday night.
“He’s not afraid to be vocal,” Coach Cal said. “He’ll talk to the guys defensively on the court, where they should be, what they should have done. If a guy doesn’t come up with the ball (he will speak up).”
Calipari has often said that when given a choice between talent and experience, he’s taking talent. But on a team that’s stocked with talent but light on experience, Mays can offer both.
Coach Cal pointed to a particular play where freshman Alex Poythress didn’t dive for a ball and Mays got on him for failing to hit the deck.
“He went up and said something (like), ‘Come on, man, dive on the ball, go get that ball for us,’ ” Calipari said. “So he’s not afraid to say it and I think these guys really respect him.”
Without veterans like Darius Miller or even a Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb that last year’s team had, someone has to take the reins and fill a very vacant leadership void.
“I think we look for it,” freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said. “We’re all young, freshmen and sophomores and a couple juniors, so I think we’re kind of looking. A lot of us stand around like you want to lead, but we can’t even lead ourselves because we’re still figuring out stuff that we’re doing wrong. When you have an older guy like Julius that’s been in the game for three, four years, he’s been here, so you look to him because he’s done it before.”
Mays has been around the block more than a few times, but he was in the same boat as the freshmen at the beginning of the summer. As a fifth-year transfer from Wright State, Mays had to undergo the same Coach Cal baptism as players like Cauley-Stein and Poythress.
Mays was initially hesitant to lead because he didn’t know anyone, Cauley-Stein said, but “we’re all brothers now, so he’s stepping up as an older brother and leading us.”
“Those are my little brothers,” Mays said. “They know anything I say to them is not personal. I’m not taking a shot at them. It’s something that I would say to anybody on the team. They’re willing to be led and I appreciate the fact that I’m playing with guys that are like that.”
Mays said he’s always had a leading personality because of how his mother raised him. The 23-year-old said his mother, Shirley, instilled a sense of strength in him with tactics other than her voice.
“She told me in other ways,” Mays said, laughing.
Mays’ injury occurred just as the Cats started to sweat off an ugly, unsettling opening 20 minutes. UK turned the ball over eight times in the first half and led by just one after Brandon Rash’s posterizing, one-hand dunk over Cauely-Stein.
“I thought I blocked it,” Cauley-Stein said, taking the humiliating moment in good spirits. “I looked and it went in and I was like, ‘Oh, this is not going to be good.’ It’s going to be all over my Twitter.”
Unhappy with what he saw in the first half, Calipari inserted Mays and Cauely-Stein for Ryan Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer to start the second half, and the Cats turned up the defensive pressure. UK forced 13 turnovers in the second half with a suffocating defense.
“I like how we started the half,” Calipari said. “I like how active we were. I liked how we were deflecting balls, how we were flying and spacing the court. I liked that.”
The Cats held the Pioneers to 26.2 percent shooting overall and surrendered just 10 points in the second half. The tide really seemed to change after Cauley-Stein was dunked on, but Cauley-Stein said it was Coach Cal’s halftime adjustments that made the difference.
“It was just the fact that Coach Cal had gotten on to a couple of us,” Cauley-Stein said.
Nerlens Noel impressed for the second straight game, especially on the offensive side of the floor. The freshman forward scored a team-high 15 points with a surprisingly powerful array of moves in the post.
Anthony Davis struggled to score over the much-smaller Transylvania defenders last year, but Noel had no problem receiving the ball in the post and bouncing over the diminutive defense for powerful one-hand dunks.
“The guy that’s working the hardest in our practices right now is Nerlens,” Calipari said. “Is it showing? It’s showing. I said to him, ‘Have you ever been coached like this?’ ‘No, man.’ He’s excited about being coached this way, challenged and pushed, and now I’ve just got to get a team full of guys accepting the fact that you’ve got to let us define your game a little bit.”
Calipari said the coaching staff is defining Noel’s game as a “basketball player who happens to be able to” block shots, not a shot blocker who can’t do much else.
Noel is embracing it, but it could take time with the other freshman. As Calipari conceded, he has a “November 5th team.”
That’s right on par with the calendar, but it doesn’t hurt to have a veteran in the hole like Mays who can lead when the going gets tough. The Cats are fortunate their early leader survived Monday’s scare and is expected to play Friday.
“They canceled the (New York City) Marathon. I was hoping maybe they’d cancel this game,” Calipari said, blending sarcasm with a hint of seriousness. “But I guess we’re going to have to go up there and play it.”