Midseason report: The players


Terrence Jones laughs with Doron Lamb after the second half of UK’s win over ETSU at Rupp Arena on Friday Nov. 12 , 2010. Photo by Britney McIntosh

Non-conference games are over. Conference games are about to start. That puts UK at the halfway point philosophically, although not mathematically. With a team as young as UK is, every player has seen changes in how they are perceived. Let’s take a look at how the players are doing. Future posts will tackle the team and then an SEC Preview.


UK head coach John Calipari has recently said that every one of his players has improved from the beginning of the season. And that’s true. The team was so inexperienced that it was inevitable. But more important than just improving, (most) players are improving in the areas they need to and at the desired rate.

Brandon Knight: The freshman point guard is perhaps the player UK has needed to develop — and it seemed inevitable he would. He’s regarded as receptive to learning, conscientious and committed, and all for good reason. Knight has made steady strides in his ability to run the team. Against Penn, a team trying to get in passing lanes, swarm the ball, and generally cause confusion, he had four assists and zero turnovers.

“I’m so proud of him,” Calipari said. “How many of you were in Hawaii (for the Maui Invitational) with us?  Different player, isn’t it.  Different player.  And that’s what you are trying to see with guys that want to change and want to get better.”

Knight has developed from a shoot-first point guard into a pass-first player. Still, he gets his points — he scored 15 or more in 11 of 14 games — but is actively looking to get teammates shots. Because of that transformation, Knight has been able to assume the leadership the coaching staff wanted him to earn at the beginning of the year. Against Penn, Eloy Vargas used one hand to go after a loose ball and didn’t get it. Knight tore into him, urging Vargas to do what he needs to do.

“He can say whatever he wants now,” Calipari said. “Early in the sesason, you can’t speak much. I’m looking at you, like, c’mon man, how about passing the ball?”

Knight understands that to be able to command respect, he had to earn it — and continue earning it by working hard in practice. Doron Lamb said nobody gets upset when Knight gets after them because he is their point guard.

“They know if I don’t get on them, coach is going to get on me,” Knight said. “So it’s kind of an understanding, really, them knowing that I just want the best for them and the best for the team.”

One thing Calipari is still looking to see is improved defense — against Louisville, the coach said 87 percent of the Cardinals’ points were scored against Knight, and coach told Knight that as well — but the coach isn’t afraid to give praise to the young player he wants to be the operator of this team. Calipari recently called Knight the least of his worries.

“Just to know that coach sees me a little differently now than he did at the beginning of the season,” Knight said in response to what the coach’s compliments means to him.

Terrence Jones: After a ridiculous start to the season — earning Maui Invitational first-team honors, launching himself into Player of the Year debate — Jones has slowed down a touch. Since a dominating game against Notre Dame, Jones has averaged 13.3 points per game and hasn’t had a double-digit rebound game. Perhaps more reason for concern is that Jones is aware. After the Penn game, he Tweeted: “Good win for us tonight, told (Brandon Knight) I don’t know what’s wrong wit me but good team win be defense.”

Some of the problems can be attributed to teams keying on Jones. Rick Pitino said the gameplan for Louisville against UK was to take away Jones, and that has been the case with a couple teams. Still, Jones has to expect it and be able to counteract. Calipari said Jones can be the best player in the country if he changes habits. A reporter asked Knight if Jones’ friendly, easygoing nature worked against him in games.

“I’m not sure what it is with Terrence, but Terrence has intensity,” Knight said. “He had a great couple last practices with fire and intensity.”

Josh Harrellson: The senior began the season as a negative symbol of the lack of Enes Kanter. He was forced into the starting lineup by default, and nobody was really sure if he could become a major contributor for UK.

He slowly erased that perception, culminating in his performance against Louisville that inspired three people to show up in jorts to the New Year’s Party I attended in his honor: 23 points and 14 rebounds, both season highs. He was named SEC Player of the Week, and for now, the lack of Kanter isn’t consuming UK fans’ minds.

Now the challenge will be for Harrellson to remain humble. He got to where he is through extra conditioning following the Twitter controversy and a changed mindset. Calipari said he wants Harrellson to “remember what it was like in Canada,” when Harrellson wasn’t a shade of the player he is today.

“I’m just going to keep playing my game, nothing’s going to change,” Harrellson said. “Finish around rim, put it in under the basket.”

That’s basically been the key for Harrellson. He isn’t a key factor in UK’s offensive system. UK doesn’t play inside-out, and Harrellson rarely gets the ball posted up to create his own points. Instead, his offense comes from putbacks on offensive rebounds (he’s getting 18.4 percent of available offensive rebounds, a high number) and from being available when perimeter players attack the lane and collapse the defense. More important than offense, though, has been providing a post player who can rebound and play solid defense. He’s done that.

Doron Lamb: The freshman came into the season with a reputation for a silky smooth jump shot, and he’s been just that. The biggest outside shooting threat for UK, Lamb broke the freshman scoring record with 32 points, most of which came from outside. He’s making over half of his three-point shots.

Generally speaking, Lamb’s play has met expectations. He doesn’t need to dominate the ball, he’s quick to pull the trigger, and he’s usually making the shots he takes. The fans are confident when he hoists a three. He’s even more confident.

“I expect every shot to go in,” Lamb said a few weeks ago.

He’s been playing off the bench and providing a spark from it. When he came out cold against Penn, Lamb said he concentrated on playing defense to make sure he stayed on the court.

“I was surprised,” Lamb said about missing his first couple shots. “I hadn’t done that in a long time.”

Eloy Vargas: The coaching staff has been working extremely hard on getting Vargas to the level where he can contribute, for a variety of reasons. Mainly, UK will need him if Harrellson is in foul trouble (or simply because Harrellson can’t play 40 minutes a game, and the small lineup might not always be available). To this point, Vargas has been underwhelming, even considering that everyone cautioned he was raw before the season.

Vargas needs to improve in a variety of areas, such as a) being tougher, b) grabbing rebounds (with two hands), c) being less soft, d) being in better position defensively, and e) being more physical.

Against Penn, Vargas “did some pretty good things,” according to Calipari. But early in the second half, Vargas got lazy and one-handed a rebound.

“That’s what we are talking about ‑‑ one hand, unacceptable, you’re out,” Calipari said. “That’s an error that we talk about a thousand times a practice.”

UK sees the progress Harrellson has made through more conditioning and more intense instruction from coaches, and hopes the same things will get Vargas going. With SEC play looming, he might be needed even more.

Darius Miller: Before the season, Miller was expected to emerge as one of the primary scoring threats and a leader on the team. He didn’t start out that way, but the last couple games offer encouraging signs.

He had an aggressive first half against Louisville, scoring in the paint in helping UK climb out of an early 12-6 hole. That was tempered by more than one foul resulting from bad defense.

Against Penn, he had 11 points and seven rebounds, but his first half was full of turnovers and flops.

Calipari noted that the media was writing stories because he had a decent game, citing “seven points and seven rebounds” as the bar. That’s not a good thing.

“I mean, again, I think he should be All‑League,” Calipari said. “That’s what I think. But it doesn’t matter what I think or you think. It’s what he thinks. And I think he should be as good as anyone in our league. There are some guys who give him problems, but he’ll give people problems. You saw him in the post; he can shoot a 3, he can make free throws, he’s good with the ball.”

DeAndre Liggins: Known for his defense, Liggins has proved just that: a lockdown defender. Against Louisville, he shut down Peyton Siva and then Preston Knowles and was the difference in the game.

What’s also emerged as part of his game is rebounding and assists. What’s been off recently is his shooting touch, going a combined 3-for-14 in the last two games. Calipari and Liggins have said he’s one of the best shooters on the team and are confident his shot will return.

Jon Hood/Stacey Poole: Both have been mired in 8th-man land, not getting enough minutes to really draw conclusions but not earning enough to see an adequate amount of time, either. Calipari’s said often he is looking for either of them to emerge as a good threat. Hood has displayed solid shooting but poor defense; Poole is a solid defender and energy guy but is limited on offense.

Enes Kanter: UK hasn’t given up on him playing. He would obviously be a tremendous boost to UK’s offense and defense if he was able to get back on the court. But hypotheticals are largely a waste of time at this point.

Jarrod Polson: SHOOOOOOOOOTT!!!! Polson has shown no hesitations to take the ball into his hands when he gets his chances to play at the end of games. He’s taken four shots (made one) and gone to the line four additional times (made all four). He’s up to six points on the year. He’s posted four trillions on the year, for anyone who’s a Club Trillion subscriber (a trillion is where you play in the game but don’t take a shot, don’t get fouled, don’t get a rebound or an assist, so that the box score says ‘1’ followed by a string of zeroes.)