A Forgotten Senior the Key to Kentucky’s ResurgencePosted by Brian Joyce on February 26th, 2013
Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.
When Kentucky lost its best player in a February 12 loss to Florida, the following contest at Tennessee on Saturday wasn’t pretty. The young Wildcats reached a fork in the road after that 30-point embarrassment — give up or keep fighting. But to keep fighting UK needed veteran leadership, a factor it had desperately and unsuccessfully sought throughout the entire season. In freshman center Nerlens Noel’s absence, a new leader has emerged. Senior Julius Mays stepped up and provided that leadership at just the right time, the point at which the Wildcats needed it most.
The Wildcats faced a must-win situation on Saturday, and coach John Calipari turned to a player he could rely on. Mays played 44 of an available 45 minutes in an overtime win against Missouri Saturday night, and Calipari and Big Blue Nation were not disappointed. Thirteen of his season high 24 points came in the final 3:37 of regulation and the extra period. “Julius was terrific, the shots he made and the leadership,” Calipari said. The transfer student has quietly developed consistency as the season progressed — in UK’s last seven games, he hasn’t had an offensive rating below 100.0 and he’s scored in double figures in six of those games. He is without question hitting his stride at just the right time.
It was Mays’ leadership in a big game earlier this season that earned his coach’s trust. In a moment where Calipari became angered at a botched play from sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, the coach didn’t need to step in because Mays was already on it. Mays looked at Calipari and said, “I got this.” That’s the sign of a leader who is assuming control. Teammates praised Mays’ work ethic and leadership too. “Julius is incredible,” freshman forward Alex Poythress said. “We look for him on and off the court. He’s always there to help with when we’re in need or anything like that. We always look for him for guidance if we’re in a pickle or we’re just confused. He’s always got the right answers.”
In displaying the skill of always coming up with the right answers, Mays deflects the questions about his leadership and frames Kentucky’s victory over Missouri as a team accomplishment. “It’s another stepping stone for us,” Mays said of the win. “Obviously it doesn’t make or break our whole season. We’re just taking it one game at a time and not looking ahead or looking past anyone, just living in the moment, enjoying the moment.” But perhaps it did make Kentucky’s whole season, inasmuch as the season after Noel’s injury. Certainly not void of enough talent to consistently win games, perhaps all the youthful Kentucky team needed was a leader.
For most watching Kentucky on Saturday the defining moment was from everybody but Mays. Poythress came up big with 21 points and seven boards in his best game since the beginning of the season. Freshman Archie Goodwin looked like a different player, the player most UK fans thought he could be, on his way to an 18-point night. Harrow was magnificent while matched up with Missouri guard Phil Pressey. Kentucky’s oft-criticized point guard had 16 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, and needless to say, he quieted his critics for a little while. Even center Willie Cauley-Stein, filling in for the injured Noel (and doing his best Noel impression while he was at it), came up with 12 rebounds and seven blocks. In light of all those outstanding performances, it was still Mays who stood out. He is probably accustomed to the freshmen grabbing the headlines — that’s life nowadays in Lexington to some degree. However, now the entire team is hopping on Uncle Julius’ back as he attempts to steer Kentucky toward what appeared to be an unlikely NCAA berth. And Mays’ emergence as the team leader may have just saved the Wildcats’ season.