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February 28, 2013Nobody's ever doubted Alex Poythress' talent. Nobody ever questioned how dangerous Kentucky could be if the freshman ever flipped the switch and found consistency.
After two straight strong games, the 6-foot-7 forward might finally be on his way.
"Coaches have been trying to get (Alex) to play (aggressive) all year," teammate Willie Cauley-Stein said after Poythress' 16-point, eight-rebound performance in an 85-55 win against Mississippi State. "It wasn't clicking. He got a taste of it and now he's clicking, it's working and that's what we needed from the get go.
"I think he's clicked. I believe he has. Does he believe he has? I don't know but we all believe he has."
Poythress has shown spurts throughout the season. In four of UK's first five games, the freshman scored at least 20 points. In UK's first seven Southeastern Conference games Poythress averaged 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
And in one of UK's biggest games of the year last Saturday against Missouri, Poythress put on a show, scoring 21 points to go with seven rebounds.
He didn't have a letdown against the Bulldogs on Wednesday.
Poythress started and didn't exit the game until the under-14 minute mark, a longer opening stint than he's used to playing. But he scored nearly as many points in that stretch (seven) as Mississippi State did as a team (eight).
"It's got to be him doing it because it's who he is, not because of the opponent or the coach or the punishment," UK coach John Calipari said. "He has made unbelievable strides."
Calipari also realizes that while Poythress is turning a corner, it's a wide turn. With the Cats facing an inferior opponent, Calipari felt Poythress could have done more.
"But you're noticing that like today, that's a 25-and-12 day if you just go," Calipari said. "Just force your will on people, versus, 'We're up 30 so I'm not going to go out, that's OK.' That's where he still is right now."
Poythress also took a charge in his first seven minutes. When Nerlens Noel was lost for the season Poythress realized everyone was going to have to step up the intensity.
"You know, I'm just trying to be more aggressive ," Poythress said. "I'm trying to be in the right position to help my team on defense, that's what I'm trying to do out there. I do feel a difference, I'm feeling more confident out here. I'm playing better and getting a better feel for the game."
While most of the Wildcats are hit their offensive stride in UK's homestand, sophomore Kyle Wiltjer has been slumping.
In UK's last three games, Wiltjer is averaging 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds, but most glaring is his 19.6 minutes per game, five minutes less than his season average.
When Wiltjer isn't on the court, the Cats are missing one of their best three point-shooters, but Calipari said Wiltjer doesn't have to be scoring to be an asset.
"We need (energy and hustle) from him more than we need his offense," Calipari said. "Obviously we're doing fine without his offense. But we need that toughness, rebounding, taking a charge, diving on the floor so we can leave him in the game."
Calipari compared it to a player in the past who found himself in shooting slumps.
"Darius (Miller) went through this a year ago," Calipari said. "I told our team, you guys have to come together, get him to do the things he needs to do. The thing we told Darius, instead of shooting jumpers, get a tough rebound, get a great stop, dive on the floor, you'll get yourself going.
"It's the only way you do it."
Earlier this season Wiltjer went through a six-game stretch in which he hit just 5-of-30 threes.
But he responded in a big way. In the following four games he averaged four threes per game. His teammates expect him to bounce back in a similar way.
"He's just in a slump, he'll get out of it," Poythress said. "He was in one earlier in the year and he comes out hitting seven threes or something like that. Kyle is fine in this situation; he just needs to keep on shooting the ball.
"We'll give it to him, we trust him and we expect him to make the shot."
Lords of the rings
It's been almost 11 months since the Wildcats won the national championship. That cast of Cats received its rings soon after and many headed to the NBA.
It's been almost 17 years since the 1996 Wildcats did the same thing. Those players received rings on Wednesday night.
In a halftime ceremony during UK's game against Mississippi State, 10 players from that team were in attendance: Derek Anderson, Jeff Sheppard, Antoine Walker, Anthony Epps, Jared Prickett, Wayne Turner, Oliver Simmons, Jason Lathrem, Walter McCarty and Tony Delk.
Mark Pope, Allen Edwards, Nazr Mohammed couldn't make it but had video segments thanking the fans. Those three, along with Cameron Mills and Ron Mercer will receive their rings individually.
In the Cats road to the 1996 championship, they defeated Calipari's Massachusetts team in the Final Four. He vividly remembers Rick Pitino's bunch.
"They sacrificed more than any team I'd ever seen," Calipari said. "When you talk about guys getting 20 minutes who deserved 40 minutes and accepting it, it was incredible."
The 1996 team received NCAA-issued championship rings. But unlike UK's title teams in 1998 and 2012, the '96 Cats didn't receive championship rings from the school.
Awarding them retroactively, Calipari said, was the right thing to do.
"Anytime I see them, they're always kind to us and this program," Calipari said. "I'm just happy that the university stepped up and did what they did. I think it shows a lot that we do reach back. If there's anything that we can make right, we do."
Calipari was unsure if former coaches, including rival Pitino, would receive rings, but Pitino told reporters after Louisville's win at DePaul on Wednesday that he probably wouldn't be receiving a ring.
Apparently he's missing out.
"I think they were nicer than our (2012) rings," Calipari said. "We let them design their own rings is what we did. What design do you want? They came up with that design. When I looked at it, I said, 'That's nicer than our ring. That makes me mad.'"