Kentucky’s gritty performance last Saturday versus the Ole Miss Rebels was exactly what the Big Blue Nation wanted to see from the No. 10 Wildcats. However, John Calipari’s team does not have time to reveal in their victory, a key SEC matchup with LSU looms later this week.
Assistant Coach Kenny Payne met with the press earlier this afternoon to give his thoughts on the battle in the bayou and more.
The conversation about LSU starts and stops with its superstar forward, Ben Simmons.
"Very unique basketball player. If you guard him with a big, he has the ability to play like a point guard. If you put a smaller player on him, he has the ability to play like a big. He’ll play great against us. I’m sure he’ll be excited. He’s an excellent rebounder. He’s a challenge", said Payne when asked to describe Simmons.
The hype around Simmons puts a target on his back and Payne said he hopes that several Kentucky players step up to challenge of guarding the talented Australian. In fact, Payne said he had a wish list of which players he wants to see do just that.
"Well, I think it’s going to be a number of guys. I think it has to be Alex (Poythress), Marcus (Lee) and maybe at times Isaiah (Briscoe). We want to throw a bunch of players at him that are going to compete against him, put pressure on him, make everything that he does hard."
If Kentucky does contain Simmons, they will still need to worry about teammates Craig Victor and Keith Hornsby.
"They bring a lot to the table. Hornsby is a really big key for their team to succeed. He’s been playing really well. He shoots the ball. He’s a leader for their team. He’s going to be a tough guy that we have to guard. We just have to get after him. Be on him on catch and shoot -- jam him up, no space. He’s tough. He can play. Victor is a big-time rebounder. He’s averaging right around 14 points a game. Big-time rebounder, can shoot the ball, good in the post – he’s a challenge", said Coach Payne on the subject of the two.
Due to all the talk about the success of Ben Simmons, the conversation turned to the struggle of Kentucky’s own uber-talented freshman Skal Labissiere.
Coach Payne said he believes that the ups and downs of the last month are good for Skal as a player.
"Skal is a very, very talented player. And I know he’s struggled some. I personally think that’s good for him. Sometimes adversity, when it comes so easy to you, adversity brings you down and makes you start over and reevaluate who you are as a player. It hasn’t been easy for the kid but the kid is super. Again, super talented. He has lost a little confidence. The greatest thing is in the last game we saw a step in the right direction. He has to continue to do that. He will. We expect that at any time he’s going to break out and have a super game. Hopefully it’s against LSU."
Payne reiterated a point that John Calipari has already made several times this season: every single heralded UK big man of the last decade struggled at one point or another during their freshman year.
"It’s hard. I mean, Karl Towns went through it. Anthony Davis went through it. Almost every player that has had success here has gone through some adversity. And that’s the good thing about our situation is guys go through it and they fight through it and then they end up having success. We have no reason to believe that he’ll be any different."
Kentucky’s last two games were their best of the season due to improved aggression and defense, Payne said.
"It starts with defense. Hopefully after the Ole Miss game something clicked. For 32 minutes of that game we were really good. Really good. It starts with defense and putting pressure on the ball and just getting after them."
Payne harkened back to the Louisville win as an example of how he thinks Kentucky needs to play the rest of the season.
"One thing that happened against Louisville is we played hard. We played aggressive. Our energy – in a sense you can say we played desperately. I think that’s who we are and who we have to be. If we do that we’ll be fine. If we come out casual or nonchalant and let (other teams) be the aggressor, we’re going to struggle."
One of the surprising developments this season is the emergence of Marcus Lee as Kentucky’s most valuable post player.
Payne praised the Lee’s progress this afternoon.
"Very proud of Marcus Lee. Before this season started, a lot of talk was he’s done it in spurts. (This season) he has probably been one of our most consistent bigs, if not the most consistent. Just overall the energy that he brings to the table. Had a couple of games where he had five blocks, in two games in a row. Just playing man, and just having fun. Enjoying it. Rebounding. Helping this team become better. He’s done that. So he’s been a really good surprise for us."
But, there are areas where Lee can improve.
"One of the things we’re talking about now is getting him to sit down in the stance and take pride in defending the way Willie (Cauley-Stein) did. If he can do that it takes his game to another level", said Payne.
Skal Labissiere is not the only struggling freshman on the Kentucky roster. Jamal Murray has been both brilliant and baffling with his play.
For Murray to take the next step as a player, he needs to take better shots.
"Jamal is an excellent shooter of the basketball. He just has to be disciplined in the shots that he takes. He’s so gifted, in his mind, there are times I can fall down and shoot it with my off hand. Left-handed behind my head, and it drives Coach crazy. We just want to see Jamal shoot disciplined game shots that we practice", said Payne.