COLLEGE STATION, Texas — This Julius Mays, the guy who sunk clutch free throws and big shots in Kentucky’s nerve-wracking 72-68 win Saturday, is who the coaching staff was hoping for when he transferred from Wright State in the offseason.
John Caliapri’s teams have been young before, but with Kyle Wiltjer as UK’s leading returner this year, the Cats were in pretty desperate need of a veteran who had some college experience, could hit big shots and would rub some leadership on to the young stars.
Easier said than done.
“It’s definitely been difficult,” Mays admitted Saturday after scoring a season-high 19 points. “I came from a situation where the ball was in my hands 30 minutes a game last year when I was at my last school. It’s just been different, me (playing) more as a spot-up shooter here and not having to create my own shot.”
Mays showed signs early in the year that he could fill that veteran roll left by Darius Miller, but then came a midseason shooting slump that saw him hit just 14-of-56 shots (25.0 percent), including 8-of-37 3-pointers (21.6 percent), over a seven-game stretch.
All along, Coach Cal said that he would continue to play the graduate student because he did other things to help the team.
“He gives us a guy that’s a veteran guy, even though he’s not been in this league as a veteran and he’s not played the minutes he’s played anywhere, but he’s doing it,” Calipari said. “He’s another one: He’s got a great attitude. He’s a great kid. He’s trying, talks to the guys, gives them that kind of leadership.”
Mays’ teammates and coaches stuck by him when the shots weren’t falling earlier this season, and the transfer from Wright State has rewarded them the last five games by hitting 19 of his last 38 shots (50.0 percent), including 14 of 27 from 3-point range (51.9 percent).
“It takes time,” Mays said. “I’m coming around, and my teammates have been patient, my coaches have been patient. I didn’t shoot the ball well early in the season, but I’ve came around and I finally found my touch.”
Mays was particularly important in UK’s overtime win at Texas A&M. He hit two 3-pointers late in the first half to give the Cats a seven-point lead, banged in what appeared to be a nail-in-the-coffin trey towards the end of regulation, and then iced the game with five free throws in the extra period, including three in the final 15 seconds.
He did all that while guarding and limiting Elston Turner, he of the 40-point outing in Rupp Arena, to 21 points on 23 shots.
“Without him, we don’t win today,” Calipari said.
Youth still holding Cats back
Coach Cal likes grinding out games just as much as any coach in the country. Style points or not, a win is a win at the end of the day for him.
“There were 150 games today and 150 teams lost,” Calipari said. “We weren’t one of them.”
That matter-of-fact way of thinking is right, but Saturday’s overtime victory wasn’t without its troubling signs.
The Cats failed to bury Texas A&M late in the first half and early in the second when the Aggies were teetering. There was the blown eight-point lead in the game. And of course, the costly six turnovers in the final 2:07 of regulation that opened the door for Texas A&M was another sign that some of the players are still playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win.
The Cats have won five of their last six, but with each passing game, it looks as though things are never going to be easy for them.
“Everything’s a dogfight,” Calipari said.
Part of the problem, Calipari said, is youth. Too often the Cats make a mistake and let it snowball into others.
“We’ve got freshmen that, if they miss a shot you might as well forget that they’re going to defend at the other end or get a rebound or block out,” Coach Cal said. “They just can’t continue to think. That’s something we’ve been working on.”
Texas A&M’s Turner said UK’s youth plays a factor.
“You’re able to see that sometimes,” Turner said.
Calipari said he’s trying to correct the problem by working on more life skills than X’s and O’s.
“We’re telling them when the negative thoughts are in your mind, how you get them out of your mind,” Coach Cal said. “This is all life skills. Adversity hits you, how do you deal with it? Got a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds and that’s what they need more than basketball.”
Noel displaying full package
Noel had another dominating game Saturday. It just wasn’t the type of dominating game anyone expected.
A few days since blocking a school-record 12 shots in the win at Ole Miss, Noel had a much different impact at Texas A&M. The freshman forward recorded the third double-double of his career with a career-high 19 points and 14 rebounds.
“Nerlens was a beast,” Calipari said. “We don’t throw it to him enough. We’re coming out of every timeout (saying), ‘Throw the ball.’ ”
Noel took just one shot in the game at Ole Miss and finished with two points. Saturday was a much different story as he took 10 field goals, making seven of them. He only blocked two shots, his fewest swat total since the Louisville game, but Texas A&M’s players admitted that they game planned around his defensive presence.
Calipari said the emphasis to get the ball to Noel had more to do more with single coverage than particular matchups in the post.
“I needed to step up offensively to keep us in the game a little bit, and I tried to just keep a good balance with it,” Noel said. “I only took one shot last game. I took a few more and I was more effective offensively, so I wasn’t going to stop taking shots.”
As a matter of fact, Calipari wanted his team to get him the ball more so he could take even more shots.
“We don’t give you the ball and you don’t say anything,” Calipari said to Noel. “Didn’t say anything. He’s happy we won. He’s in there, he’s good.”
Noel is averaging 10.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.6 blocks and 2.3 steals per game.
Cauley-Stein gets the wheels spinning
After sitting in the garage for four games while his left knee healed from a minor procedure, freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein made his return to the court Saturday for the first time since the Tennessee game on Jan. 15.
“I just wanted him to get out there and get his wheels underneath him, and I thought he did fine,” Calipari said.
Cauley-Stein played four minutes in the first half but did not return after that. Coach Cal said that was by design – not because of a re-aggravated injury.
“The way the game went, I just (told him), ‘Look, I’m not going to do this to you. You’ve been out for two weeks,’ ” Calipari said. “But he’s fine.”
Cal takes the blame for costly turnover
Of UK’s six turnovers in the final 2:07 of regulation, the jump ball the Aggies forced with Wiltjer in the closing seconds proved to be the most damaging. The possession arrow gave the ball back to Texas A&M, setting the stage for Turner’s game-tying jumper.
After the game, Calipari took the blame for putting his sophomore forward in a precarious position with a “bad baseline play.”
“Putting Kyle in that position wasn’t fair, even though we told him if you get anything near you, just call a timeout,” Coach Cal said. “He said he did, but obviously didn’t yell it.”
The scary part: Calipari nearly called the same play again in overtime.
“I almost ran it again, which is like, what am I thinking?” Calipari said. “I had to call a second timeout to run something different.”