Remaining mentally prepared tough but necessary task for Kentucky’s seldom-used freshmen

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Coaches say it all the time: remain prepared because you never know when your opportunity will come. While that’s an easy thing to say and an easy concept to agree to fully buying in is another matter, especially when the player in question arrives on campus at a McDonald’s All-American.

That’s the position Kentucky freshman center Marcus Lee has found himself in for much of this season, with the newcomer playing an average of just over six minutes per game. In SEC play the Californian didn’t see action in nine of the Wildcats’ 18 regular season games, and he played a total of one minute in Kentucky’s first three NCAA tournament games. So when Willie Cauley-Stein went down with an ankle injury early in their Sweet 16 win over No. 4 Louisville, more than a few people saw that as a hit the Wildcats would be unable to shake off.

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Enter Lee, who gave Kentucky 15 quality minutes in their Elite Eight win over Michigan, scoring ten points, grabbing eight rebounds (seven offensive) and blocking two shots. Opportunity knocked, and Lee was both ready and able to take advantage of the situation. And that preparedness reveals a level of maturity that some freshmen would lack when having to deal with the idea of not seeing much playing time after entering college as one of the pieces of a prized recruiting class.

“We coach every player like they’re a starter,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said earlier this week. “There’s no one coached different. You’re held accountable just like a starter. You’re pushed and challenged and coached just like a starter would be.

“We try throughout the season to make sure we’re getting those kids minutes so by the end of the year if something happens, they’re ready to go. So I’m not surprised.”

Lee was one of two freshmen who stepped forward in that victory after seeing little playing time throughout the course of the season. Dominique Hawkins didn’t score a point in his 11 second-half minutes, but his defending of Nik Stauskas was a critical factor for the Wildcats. After scoring 18 points on 5-for-7 shooting from the field in the first half Stauskas scored just six in the second, shooting 1-for-7 from the field.

“I just keep myself prepared because I know someone can get in foul trouble or injured, and the assistant coaches always tell me to be ready for my chance,” Hawkins told NBC Sports. “During the Michigan game I made the most of my chance. Coach Cal wanted me to play good defense on Stauskas, and I feel like I did the majority of the [second half].”

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How much of a role Hawkins plays in Saturday’s game against No. 2 Wisconsin remains to be seen, but in the case of Lee he’ll be asked to contribute against a Wisconsin front court anchored by Frank Kaminsky. Cauley-Stein is holding out hope that he’ll be able to play, but he has still yet to go full speed in practice. With that being the case, Lee may once again find himself in the spotlight. And remaining positive despite receiving limited playing time is a trait that can serve a player such as Lee well in such moments.

“No not at all, because we were winning,” Lee said when asked if he was frustrated by the decrease in playing time. “You can’t be mad about winning. Just being with my team and working hard each day, you really don’t have time to be mad about everything.

“I’ve gone through games and practices the same way I always have,” added Lee. “My mentality is always to stay ready and do whatever needs to be done for my team.”

A difficult mentality for some highly regarded prospects to maintain in the face of adversity, that mindset is one reason why Kentucky was able to do enough to beat Michigan and reach the Final Four. And both Lee and Hawkins will need to remain mentally prepared, should their names be called Saturday night.

College Basketball Talk’s Top 25: Xavier, Syracuse, Texas A&M are big winners

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At this point in the season, I think it is still too early to solely base rankings off of on-the-court results. That’s why you’re going to find North Carolina higher in this poll than likely anywhere else on the internet. Until we see what the Tar Heels look like with Marcus Paige — which, mind you, could happen on Tuesday night when they host Maryland — I’m not sure I’m ready to drop them, even for a team that looks as good as Michigan State or Kansas.

The biggest risers of the week: Xavier and Syracuse, who both won big tournaments over the Thanksgiving holiday. They also both happened to knock off rivals in the process, as the Musketeers blew out Dayton while the Orange knocked off UConn.

1. Kentucky (6-0, LW: No. 1): Kentucky got a real scare over the weekend, as Tyler Ulis hyper-extended his elbow against South Florida. He appears to be just fine.

2. Maryland (6-0, LW: No. 2): The Terps have not looked great early on this season, but they’re going to get a real test on Tuesday when they visit UNC.

3. North Carolina (5-1, LW: No. 3): Here’s to hoping Marcus Paige is healthy when Maryland comes to visit this week.

4. Michigan State (7-0, LW: No. 4): Denzel Valentine has been sensational this season, but the most impressive part of Michigan State’s win over Providence on Sunday was that they did it while Valentine was in foul trouble and struggling to shoot the ball.

5. Kansas (4-1, LW: No. 6): The Jayhawks had a pretty good week. They won Maui, they blew out a good Vanderbilt team, Wayne Selden showed up and Cheick Diallo got eligible. I hope Bill Self bought some lottery tickets.

6. Villanova (6-0, LW: No. 5): I really like the Wildcats this year, I do, but I dropped them a spot for two reasons: 1. I thought Kansas was better entering the season and the Jayhawks looked terrific this week in Maui, before Cheick Diallo played, and 2. Villanova hasn’t beaten anyone of note yet. Next Monday they get Oklahoma. We’ll know then.

7. Iowa State (5-0, LW: No. 7): The Cyclones are 5-0 with wins over three high-major programs, but their best win may be the win over Chattanooga. I think we’ll really get a feel for how good this team next month, when, in a 12-day stretch, they get Iowa, Northern Iowa and Cincinnati on the road.

8. Oklahoma (4-0, LW: No. 8): The Sooners put a whooping on Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, the kind of performance that made it very clear Oklahoma is a contender this season and Wisconsin is not. Buddy Hield has been terrific, but so has big man Ryan Spangler.

9. Duke (6-1, LW: No. 10): The loss to Kentucky continues to look like the aberration in Duke’s early season schedule, as they rolled over Utah State and Yale this week. The big news: Luke Kennard has finally found his rhythm, as he scored 22 points and went 4-for-5 from the floor on Sunday.

10. Virginia (5-1, LW: No. 11): Virginia has won four straight since their loss at GW, scoring at least 80 points in every game and never giving up more than 66. It’s not the stiffest of competition, but it should go to show you (like I said at the time) that the loss at GW said more about GW than Virginia.

11. Xavier (7-0, LW: No. 21)
12. Purdue (6-0, LW: No. 15)
13. Vanderbilt (5-1, LW: No. 16)
14. Miami (5-1, LW: No. 9)
15. Syracuse (6-0, LW: UR)
16. Texas A&M (6-1, LW: UR)
17. Gonzaga (4-1, LW: No. 17)
18. Oregon (5-0, LW: No. 25)
19. Cincinnati (7-0, LW: No. 20)
20. Baylor (4-1, LW: No. 22)
21. Butler (4-1, LW: No. 23)
22. UConn (4-2, LW: No. 18)
23. Providence (6-1, LW: UR)
24. West Virginia (6-0, LW: UR)
25. SMU (4-0, LW: UR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Cal, No. 13 Arizona, No. 14 Indiana, No. 19 Notre Dame, No. 24 Wichita State

WEEKLY AWARDS: Denzel Valentine’s big week, Kansas makes a statement

Denzel Valentine
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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

In the title game of the Wooden Legacy, a game that was billed as a matchup between the two best players in college basketball — Valentine and Kris Dunn — Valentine was downright bad …

… by his standards. He finished with “just” 17 points, six assists and five boards. I say “just” because, in the previous two games of the tournament, the Spartan superstar averaged 30.5 points, 10.0 boards and 8.0 assists. He’s been, hands down, the best player in college basketball this season, and that didn’t change this week.


  • Ben Bentil, Providence: Kris Dunn is the guy that is going to get all the national praise, but it was Bentil’s emergence that was critical for the Friars. He averaged 21.7 points and 6.0 boards in three games in the Wooden Legacy, carrying PC when Dunn was battling foul issues.
  • Wayne Selden, Kansas: The highlight of Selden’s week was scoring 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the Maui title game win over No. 19 Vanderbilt. For the week, he averaged 19.3 points and shot 12-for-17 from three.
  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Robinson averaged 25.7 points in three games for Monmouth at the Advocare Invitational. The Hawks beat No. 17 Notre Dame and USC in the process, only losing to Dayton by three.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Remember when Justin Jackson was struggling? He averaged 21.5 points, 9.0 boards and 5.0 assists in wins over Northwestern and Kansas State. That came on the heels of a 25-point performance in the loss at Northern Iowa.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Ellenson notched three straight double-doubles for the Golden Eagles this week, which included 16 points and 11 boards in a win over Ben Simmons and LSU.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas headed out to Maui as a team that many weren’t really sure what to make of. They looked good against Michigan State for 30 minutes, then they blew that game as Denzel Valentine went bananas. They had as much depth as anyone in the country, but Brannen Greene was suspended, Cheick Diallo was ineligible and Wayne Selden was the most notable of a handful of talented players that had been somewhere between inconsistent and ineffective this year.

That all changed in Maui — well, other than Greene’s suspension — as Kansas rolled over Chaminade, UCLA and Vanderbilt to bring home the tournament title. Blowing out Chaminade was to be expected. But beating down a talented UCLA team? Dominating a very good Vanderbilt squad? That’s the Kansas we’ve been hoping to see show up for a few years now. The question is whether or not it’s sustainable, and at least on paper, it appears to be. Selden’s shooting percentages will come back to earth, but his raw numbers are less important than his confidence and aggressiveness. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are going to continue to take pressure off of each other in the back court. Perry Ellis isn’t going anywhere.

I questioned whether or not Kansas was truly one of the nation’s elite when the season started. I think they answered that question for me.


  • Xavier: The Musketeers not only won the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, they blew out in-state — and former Atlantic 10 — rival Dayton in the finals.
  • Syracuse: The Orange are going to be a factor in the ACC this season. How much? I don’t know. But after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis by knocking off No. 18 UConn and No. 25 Texas A&M, it’s clear they’re going to be involved all season.
  • Northeastern: The Huskies picked up a road win against No. 15 Miami on this buzzer-beating jumper.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans picked up their second huge road win of the year, going into Tulsa and knocking off the Golden Hurricane. They’re now 5-0 on the season, having also won at SDSU.
  • Tournament winners: West Virginia knocked off Richmond and San Diego State to bring home the Las Vegas Invitational title, No. 24 Cincinnati beat Nebraska and George Washington in the Barclays Center Classic and Marquette knocked off LSU and Arizona State to win the Legends Classic.


Tuesday: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday: Butler at No. 24 Cincinnati, 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday: Louisville at No. 3 Michigan State, 7:15 p.m.
Wednesday: No. 13 Indiana at No. 6 Duke, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday: No. 11 Arizona at No. 10 Gonzaga, 3:15 p.m.