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By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
Thirty-five minutes of futility.
Graduate student guard Julius Mays contributed just three points and three rebounds in a 1-of-8 shooting performance Saturday at the Yum Center in the 80-77 loss to U of L.
The outing was the culmination of a three-game drought that saw Mays shoot a combined 3-of-23 from the field and 1-of-15 from the 3-point line.
“I’ve been down on myself lately because I haven’t been hitting my shots,” Mays said.
Despite the woeful shooting and scoring numbers, Mays didn’t hurt the team. He dished 11 assists and had just two turnovers in those three games, played solid defense and was a perfect 8-of-8 from the foul line.
“Even when Julius is missing shots, he doesn’t hurt your team,” head coach John Calipari said. “He just doesn’t make shots. Julius never hurts us, he just maybe doesn’t help us as much as we want. Today he helped us.”
He also provided experienced leadership to one of the nation’s most youthful teams. Calipari started four freshmen against Eastern Michigan Wednesday — surprisingly the first time he has done that during his tenure at UK.
“This is a process with this team. We’re starting four freshmen,” Calipari said. “I would like to know if anybody else in the country is doing that?”
A prime example of Mays’ leadership came with eleven minutes of play remaining Wednesday as the Cats were pounding Eastern Michigan by 36 points.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin missed from behind the arc and three Eagles had rebounding position.
Seemingly from nowhere, UK freshman forward Alex Poythress barreled in the middle of the threesome, ripped the ball away, made a follow-up attempt and drew a foul.
That is a play that Poythress had been giving up on (even in close games), but as he unleashed his “beast mode” to make the play Wednesday the first person to give him encouragement was Mays.
“He (Poythress) is a guy that shows the least amount of emotion that he can,” Mays said. “So when he does something (good) I always want to encourage him.”
Much of the last week, the focus has been on Poythress, as he goes through individual workouts with Calipari to help unleash his full potential.
“It’s been tough,” Poythress said. “I’ve just been working out and trying to get better.”
That is just the most recent symbol of the season-long discovery process that is this year’s team. With so few returning players and so little returning production, getting every player in the perfect role has been a challenge for Calipari.
Mays was figured to be this year’s Darius Miller, the calming leader who can hit shots and do the little things on the court that end up meaning so much.
He fits that role perfectly.
Cat fans remember Miller clutching the championship trophy last year, after averaging nearly 12 points per game in the tournament to help lead the Cats to No. 8. Not many, however, remember his disappearing act in the SEC tourney, where he went scoreless with a combined three rebounds in the first two games.
Getting Miller involved in the offense was so important to the team last year, that forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gave him his starting spot in the SEC Championship Game, where Miller broke out to lead the Cats with 16 points (in a losing effort against Vanderbilt).
Mays broke out of his shooting slump Wednesday, scoring 13 points on 3-of-7 shooting (all behind the arc).
“I knew it was a matter of time. The only way a shooter can come out of a slump is to keep shooting,” Mays said. “As long as I keep my confidence in myself and my teammates, I’ll be fine. They want me to shoot more, but when you’re missing you start to second-guess yourself. To see the ball go in is a good feeling.”
He also found his teammates for open looks, dishing four assists.
On paper, Mays may have an unproductive game or two, but his experienced leadership simply can’t be measured statistically — especially when the rest of the Cats are so young.
“I didn’t come here to get numbers,” Mays said. “I came here to win.”