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By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
UK head coach John Calipari has instituted a cyclical personnel process in his time in Lexington: Recruit the best, attempt to mold their talents into one, send them off to the next level, restart.
Never, until this year, has he implemented the use of a veteran transfer student. And quietly, that transfer has become the emotional leader of the Cats.
Graduate student Julius Mays came to UK from Wright State last summer after averaging 14.1 points per game in his only year as a Raider. He spent two years at North Carolina State before that, albeit with minimal production.
His role on this UK team back in November was a mystery. He was viewed by many as a role player, brought in as a backup guard to add 3-point shooting to an athletic roster.
But it became apparent from the onset that his role would be much more than that.
Although he had difficulty scoring early (19 points in the first three games), his steady demeanor required Calipari to play him upward of 30 minutes per game nearly every night.
He went through a shooting slump in late December, a string of six games in which he shot just 9-42 (21 percent) from the field.
He fought through it, though, and has made fewer than two 3-pointers in just two games since Jan. 10. He has made at least one in 18 straight games.
Mays’ contributions, however, have been much more than scoring as of late.
Several things changed on Feb. 12 when the Cats lost freshman center Nerlens Noel for the season. Calipari was searching for answers, and for someone to fill the void he thought his team lacked.
“If they make a mistake … they hang their head,” Calipari said. “You’re not helping your teammates … that’s selfish. And we’re just trying to slowly get through that.”
That recovery process was not as immediate as he would have hoped. The first game without Noel was a 30-point loss to Tennessee, the largest in the Calipari-era at UK.
After the Cats’ 74-70 win over Vanderbilt to break the two-game losing streak, Calipari spoke about the overall impact Mays makes on the floor.
“The greatest thing for (Mays is he doesn’t) even have to make shots,” he said. “He’s defending; he’s passionate; he’s showing leadership … and if he doesn’t make shots, it’s easy to leave him on the court.”
Mays has become that guy who Calipari can count on. He noticed what his teammates needed and felt like he was the one to help.
“It was that time that we all had to start taking ownership,” Mays said. “It shouldn’t have to keep coming from the coaches. I’m a guy they feel like they all trust and if it was coming from me, I felt like they would listen to me.”
With their postseason lives now hanging in the balance, UK can’t afford another major regression. But, the team might have found some form of identity post-Noel, and a veteran leader to match.
“Julius is incredible,” freshman forward Alex Poythress said. “On and off the court, he is always there to help us when we are in need. We look to him for guidance. He always knows the right things to say.”
UK is a drastically different team than before Noel’s injury. Calipari has strived to get the Cats to fight for what they want out of this season, but Mays, Calipari said, doesn’t have that problem.
“Julius Mays said ‘Every time I put that uniform on, I know how privileged I am to have it on,’ ” Calipari said. “ ‘I’m going to enjoy every minute of having that uniform on. That’s why I’m playing the way I am.’ ”