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January 2, 2013There were lapses, moments on Wednesday night when Alex Poythress didn't play with the energy he's supposed to, didn't give the effort that Kentucky coach John Calipari is demanding of his freshman forward.
But those moments were few enough that when Poythress went to the locker room following Kentucky's 90-38 win against Eastern Michigan, he got a little ovation from his teammates.
"It was just cool," Poythress said after finishing with 16 points and five rebounds against the Eagles. "People were saying I'm improving."
He's been given little choice.
Since last Saturday's loss at Louisville - in which Poythress had seven points and five rebounds in 15 minutes - Poythress has been Calipari's pet project. The two had three days of individual workouts in addition to team practices, all with the intent of pushing Poythress to work harder, to play faster, to display more enthusiasm.
He didn't do it all night on Wednesday. But he did it a lot more.
"Alex was real good," said point guard Ryan Harrow, who had 15 points, eight assists and four steals against Eastern Michigan. "He played like we all know Alex can play, just being a beast out there."
That was particularly true in the second half. Poythress started the half with a pair of powerful dunks, helping the Wildcats (9-4) expand a lead that had ballooned to 38-14 by halftime.
And though Poythress had some downs with his ups, those quiet moments had no impact on a game Kentucky dominated virtually from start to finish. The Eagles (7-6) shot 24.2 percent, committed 19 turnovers that led to 25 Kentucky points and got battered on the backboards 52-27.
Given Kentucky's dominance, much of the postgame chatter centered on Poythress. Though he's averaging 14 points and 6.3 rebounds and shooting 64.2 percent from the floor, there's a sense that Poythress hasn't given the Wildcats all he can.
That's at the heart of Calipari's private workouts, with Poythress said have been productive. Because he "still has some glitches," Calipari said, they'll continue starting Thursday.
"There were just two or three things at the start of the game that we have been working on that he didn't carry over," Calipari said. "He reverted back. But he at least played with some energy. You could see it. He ran the floor hard. You could see it."
Calipari tends to be more encouraging in private workouts than in practices, said Harrow, who has been through his own one-on-one work with the coach. At gametime, he's not always been so low-key with Poythress.
"You just listen to what the coach is saying," Poythress said. "It's always something to help you. He's not just going to yell at you just to yell at you. It's always going to be something to help you out or because he sees something that you're doing wrong."
Though he was one of the nation's top high school prospects, Poythress said this season isn't the first time he's struggled with his game, nor the first time he's had a coach crank up the volume in trying to get through to him.
"That's how you want a coach to be," Poythress said.
And Calipari's not the only one trying to encourage Poythress. His teammates also are trying to liven up the stoic forward.
"He's a guy that shows the least amount of emotion that he can," guard Julius Mays said. "We always try and get a smile out of him, get him excited. He's the only guy I know who can dunk on somebody and run down the floor with his head down."
Teammates have taken an interest in large part because they view Poythress as crucial to this season's success. Though Poythress insisted "Everyone's equally important in this thing we're trying to accomplish," his teammates have said it's critical to have Poythress playing closer to his potential.
On Wednesday, he took a step in that direction.
"I don't think it's going to be too hard for him to keep doing it, because he's going to keep putting in the extra work," Harrow said. "And Coach Cal's going to make sure he stays on him to do it, and he's got to do it in practice. If he keeps doing it in practice, it's going to show in the games."