LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari promises that Alex Poythress will improve.
In fact, he's taking a personal interest to ensure the freshman's growth.
One of the Wildcats' four highly touted rookies, Poythress is struggling. Despite being Kentucky's second-leading scorer and rebounder, inconsistency has raised concerns about his commitment.
Poythress didn't start in Saturday's 80-77 loss to rival Louisville and had just seven points and five rebounds in a season-low 15 minutes. Calipari hinted Monday that Poythress might not play in Wednesday's non-conference home game against Eastern Michigan unless he improves.
The coach is trying to avoid that scenario through one-on-one sessions with Poythress, aiming to correct flaws in his game and motivate the soft-spoken forward. Calipari's personal instruction has already helped guard Ryan Harrow rejoin the starting lineup for Kentucky (8-4).
"He just has to change his habits just like Ryan (Harrow) had to," Calipari said. "The minute he changes his habits, the minute he changes his mentality of how he wants to play and how he needs to play, he will be fine. I will say in two weeks, when you see him play in two weeks, you will say you are slowly seeing the change.
"I don't know if it will be this week because I will only have three workouts with him, but by the next game, you will start to see a difference and say, 'Wow, is he playing different.' I am not doing anything but making him do stuff and change his habits and making him think differently about how you should play the game."
Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein and Poythress arrived at Kentucky this season facing high expectations of duplicating the success of recent rookie classes, especially last year's group that earned the Wildcats' eighth national title. Some NBA scouting blogs even projected the 6-foot-7, 239-pound Poythress as a potential first-round draft pick because of his strength and ability to play both forward spots.
Poythress, averaging 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game this season, has shown that potential in spots.
Since scoring 20 or more points in four of his first five contests — including 20 against Duke — Poythress' highest total was 16 against Samford five games ago. His rebounding has held steady, though Calipari believes he's capable of grabbing more on the offensive end.
The coach attributes that weakness to Poythress' lack of focus that has shown in his periodic failure to get back on defense or battle for rebounds. Calipari has also questioned his fitness.
Three weeks of "Camp Cal," Calipari's boot camp-style conditioning program, has improved the stamina of Kentucky players. But in working exclusively with Poythress as Calipari did with players as an NBA head coach, he hopes to address specific weaknesses and motivate him to play every game as well as he did against Duke.
"The question is, why is it your mentality that that is OK?" to jog back or stand up, Calipari said. "Where did you come up with that that it's OK to be that way? If you are capable of doing this all the time, why would you not do it? That is the whole mentality that you have to change. It just takes time."
Calipari said he has seen progress after spending 38 minutes on Sunday and 27 Monday working with Poythress on areas such as body positioning and how and where he catches the ball. Sprints were used as a penalty to improve Poythress' free throw shooting after he went 2-for-6 against the Cardinals.
That threat yielded quick results as Poythress made every free throw Monday and avoided his least favorite exercise. He was not available for interviews.
"He's still not ready to play a game," Calipari said. "We have time before our next game, and we'll see where he goes."
Anyone needing proof that Calipari's personal instruction works can just ask Harrow.
A month after having to work his way back into the Wildcats' rotation following a four-game absence because of illness and a family matter back in Georgia, Harrow has started the past three games at point guard and scored 40 points over the past two. Besides improving his conditioning at Camp Cal, Harrow said he has evolved from laid-back jokester to being more serious about his role.
He believes Poythress will follow suit.
"Alex cares," Harrow said. "He gets mad when coach talks to him, he gets mad when we talk to him. He's just a different guy that doesn't show much emotion. I was like that.
"But you can't be out there just getting by. It's not just Alex that has to change. We all do."
Though the Wildcats' record falls below what was expected from them at this point, Cauley-Stein has seen signs of improvement that he believes will serve Kentucky well in a short time. Every player has had to mature in his own way and at his own pace, and he's confident that Poythress will take similar steps forward.
"We all have seen the beastly Alex, and we want him to come out of the shell that he's in and play like he knows how to," Cauley-Stein said. "It could be a slow process, but as a team, we've just got to stay with him and keep him positive."