CRAWFORD | As spotlight brightens, Kentucky players not sweating - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | As spotlight brightens, Kentucky players not sweating the pressure

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STARKVILLE, Miss. (WDRB) — For much of January, the University of Kentucky basketball team lived as low-profile an existence as an unbeaten team can have, beating unranked opponents and garnering only the usual attention from national sources.

But as February turns to March, those days are over. The New York Times was at a couple of road games earlier this month. Yahoo! Sports and online writers from ESPN and CBS have been to recent home games. ESPN announced this week that they will take every Calipari post-game news conference live for the rest of the season.

A winter storm expected to hit Mississippi is the big news today in Starkville, but the top-ranked and 27-0 Wildcats visiting town are a close second. 

Like the weather, it seems, everybody complains about the Wildcats, but nobody can do anything about them.

While Mississippi State, an 18.5-point underdog tonight, might not present a great challenge for the Wildcats, keeping focus amid the circus beginning to build around them could be.

So far, the team seems to be showing few ill-effects of any pressure its unbeaten run might bring. They're laid back and even joke with each other.

“This group is so pleasant when you see them come out to practice each day and even in games,” UK assistant Barry “Slice” Rohrssen said on Monday. “It's amazing that you can get a group of guys on one team that care about each other so much, that like each other so much, that are selfless. We probably have over 400 assists on 700 made field goals – somewhere in that number (actually 415 assists on 703 field goals). Probably goes far to say it's probably the highest assist average per game during the Calipari era, and that says a lot about these guys.”

So does their demeanor. With past Kentucky teams that everyone expected to win national championships entering the season — particularly in 1978 and 1996 — there was tangible stress. Not that they didn't have fun, but there was an element of pressure that showed itself from time to time.

The players on this team have at no point really showed any indication that the weight of expectation is wearing on them. Perhaps that's because the team is so deep that the weight is shared among so many players — and no one of them is bearing the brunt of it.

After UK beat Auburn by 35 points last Saturday, Marcus Lee and Karl-Anthony Towns got into a back-and-forth debate during their postgame interviews.

Lee talked about how much Karl-Anthony Towns eats. Towns, sitting about 15 feet away, overheard it while he was talking to his reporter, answering questions in, frankly, unsettling detail, about “Karlito,” his alter ego/imaginary friend.

UK coach John Calipari was talking about how Towns, when he's being yelled at, won't say anything back, but might turn and mutter something over his shoulder. When Cal asked who he was talking to, Rohrssen said, “He's talking to Karlito.” Since then, media members covering UK have been all over the imaginary confidant on Towns' shoulder.

Lee was talking about Towns, when Towns shouted over to him.

“Stay in your bubble,” Lee shouted back. “You know, he has to eat for two, maybe three. I don't know why he's so skinny. If I eat, maybe, three Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, he eats seven. He just keeps eating. Yeah, I'm talking about you over there.”

Towns: “Why are you talking about my eating habits?”

Lee: “Because you eat so much more than I do.”

Towns: “Because if you walk from here to there you lose ten pounds.”

Pretty soon, Lee had Towns in a playful headlock. As they walked back to the locker room, Towns shouted to reporters, “Look, Marcus just lost five pounds. Look, there's another five.”

This is not a high-stress environment. In fact, the most stress these guys probably encounter during a week is in practice. It's certainly where they face the most competition. Several players said that scuffles between players aren't that unusual, and that Calipari has had to stop some practices when things got too heated.

“I walk out of practices with cuts, and bruises,” Lee said. “Half the team is in the training room. We're just battling each other to the point where you'll see fights and Cal has to stop practices. But we're just going at each other hard.”

Towns said that while intense, they're also some of the most fun and useful times the team has.

Bruce Pearl wondered aloud what they must be like after his team lost in Rupp Arena last Saturday.

“I can't imagine what their practices are like,” he said. “I just can't. And right now, for me, when we're not quite as deep or talented, it's hard for me in practice to get our guys to get better sometimes. Our roster is pretty thin and we can't live without two or three guys for sure. These guys are getting better because they're banging each other in practice all the time. Depth is a great thing.”

Towns said, “They're slugfests. It's like a prize fight when you go in there. You have to bring it, or you're going to get embarrassed, and everybody will let you hear it. . . . You compete so hard because you want to get better. The fights are not because we don't like each other, but we're competing so hard. The great thing for me is that, you talk about Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, if you can score on people like that, you can score on anybody in the country. Every day you're able to go against the best, and you don't have to wait for whatever day or whatever game. You get that every day.”

As the spotlight gets brighter, expect UK players to beat up on each other more in private, but beat up opponents more when the lights go on. And to keep smiling.

It's a team that appears ready for its close up.

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