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December 31, 2012

Calipari hopes private workouts give Poythress a boost

Sometimes it's a dunk, a high-flying rebound thrown down on a defender. Other times it's a long jump shot that swishes the net. Often it's as simple as a sudden burst of explosive energy.

They're all tastes of what Alex Poythress can do. The Kentucky freshman doles them out almost every game.

But the Wildcats (8-4) need something more substantive.

"Alex could be the best player in college basketball, because he has the physical attributes; he's skilled," teammate Ryan Harrow said. "He could just be a beast. But he's holding himself back."

Now John Calipari is trying to turn Poythress loose.

The Kentucky coach held individual workouts with the 6-foot-7, 239-pound freshman on Sunday and Monday, the start of a process he hopes will help Poythress live up to his considerable potential.

Similar workouts helped Harrow - who missed four games earlier this season with an illness and a family issue - get more comfortable with what Calipari wants from him. Kentucky's hope is that Poythress takes a similar path.

"What's happened is, and I told (Harrow), 'You fought me the whole way. Now you just said, "OK it's not working my way."' And he's changed. Things changed. Now we've got to get Alex to change."

Whatever Poythress had been doing before wasn't working.

After averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game over Kentucky's first five games, Poythress is averaging 10.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game over its past seven. His point total has decreased in each of his past four games.

He hit a low in last Saturday's loss to Louisville.

For the first time this season, Poythress didn't start. And though neither his seven points or five rebounds were season lows, his 15 minutes played were six fewer than in any other game this season.

Poythress was mostly a non-factor in Kentucky's 80-77 loss to the Cardinals. He needs to be a significant factor going forward.

So Calipari will continue to work with him in private workouts daily. On Sunday, the two worked together for 38 minutes, Calipari said. On Monday, Poythress cut that to 27 minutes by doing everything he needed to do in less time.

Poythress works on transition, on catching the ball in the right places on the court, on catching the ball with two hands, on staying low in the post. In between the up-tempo plays, he breaks to shoot free throws. If he doesn't make four out of five, he has to run a 31-second sprint.

On Monday, he didn't run a single one.

Calipari pointed to that as proof of how good Poythress can be. Now, Calipari said, the challenge is to "make losing like it's running" and display that mental toughness in games.

Poythress has shown flashes. He dominated in Kentucky's loss to Duke, finishing with 20 points, eight rebounds and a string of spectacular dunks. But even against the Blue Devils, he reverted to some bad habits.

Of late, that's been even more common.

Poythress appears to lose focus. His effort seems inconsistent.

"The question is, 'Why's your mentality that that's OK? Where did you come up with that, that it's OK to be that way? If you're capable of doing this all the time, why would you not do it?'" Calipari said. "That's the whole mentality that's gotta change. Just takes time."

Harrow can relate.

The sophomore point guard arguably has been the Wildcats' best player the past two weeks. That came on the heels of some private time on the court with Calipari.

Harrow said the change it's made - in how hard he plays in games, in how much more confident he is - has been "obvious."

That's in part because of the atmosphere in private workouts. Calipari's intense in-game demeanor is well-documented. He's much the same way in team practices. But Calipari is "actually real encouraging" in private workouts, Harrow said.

"Coach Cal is different than any coach that I've ever came up against, and I'm sure he's a different coach than Alex has ever had," Harrow said. "Being in high school, if your coach was to talk to you like that, you'd be like, 'Who are you talking to?' You basically need me in high school. In college, you can't do that. You have to listen to everything he says. You have to take it in and try to change yourself for the best."

But Harrow admits that change doesn't come easily.

Poythress is "a chill guy," Harrow said, noting that he was much the same way prior to this season. Those are lifelong habits that Calipari's trying to change as he tries to get Poythress closer to his ceiling as a player.

Calipari's focus has put "a lot more expectations and pressure" on Poythress, teammate Willie Cauley-Stein said.

"You've seen the Duke game," Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, there's not a lot of people in the country that can do that. You know Coach Cal wants to see that all the time. (Poythress) hasn't been doing it all the time, and (Calipari) doesn't understand why. The pressure for him is crazy."

Calipari's trying to guide him through that, too. Kentucky hosts Eastern Michigan on Wednesday, and Calipari said fans might not see much change in Poythress by then. The two will have only worked out together three times prior to the game.

But the change will come, Calipari said.

"He's just got to change his habits just like Ryan had to," Calipari said. "The minute he changes his habits, the minute he changes his mentality of how he wants to play and how he needs to play, he'll be fine."

If he does, Harrow said, Poythress won't be the only one who looks different.

"We'll definitely be winning more games against better competition," Harrow said. "But it's not just Alex. It's all of us. I had to make the change. Alex has to make the change. Nerlens (Noel) has to make the change, Archie (Goodwin). We all have things that we have to improve on, and once we improve on all of those things, we'll be that Kentucky team - back in the rankings and back making a run for the championship."


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