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September 23, 2013Two weeks into the school semester, Kentucky basketball players were going through an extra 90-minute learning session.
This one didn't feature lectures or exams. Instead, Steve Shenbaum, founder of game on, a company that specializes in communication, leadership, character development and media training, led the team through improvisation-based games that foster communication and trust.
He also got to see what innate traits this team, trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament, possess.
"You could see the freshmen really had an ability to step up and lead," Shenbaum said. "My biggest takeaway was that these guys understand pressure. Even though they're freshmen, there was a sense of focus and intensity that is rare to find in 18-year-olds.
"Aaron and Andrew (Harrison) showed great leadership skills. Dakari (Johnson) showed a wonderful sense of humor. Julius (Randle) showed a great ability to lead, because he has a really strong presence."
The maturity level of the new Kentucky Wildcats -- eight in John Calipari's most recent No. 1-ranked recruiting class -- struck Shenbaum, who was worked with numerous professional and amateur sports players, including multiple UK teams.
He worked with the men's basketball team last season and has previously worked with the football and soccer teams. He also had a session with the women's basketball team this year.
In addition, he's previously worked with the Florida State football team. When Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington, he asked the athletic department if he could bring in Shenbaum.
They told him he'd already been here and would have no trouble arranging more visits.
"It was kind of a nice combination of past relationships I'd had, all converging in Lexington," Shenbaum said.
But he didn't have past relationships with the new basketball players.
With the coaching staff and returning players familiar with his methods, though, the "buy-in" was easier, Shenbaum said.
And he, likewise, got a first impression of the newcomers.
"To me, it was clearly a group of young freshmen that didn't act like freshmen," Shenbaum said. "If you didn't know any better, you couldn't tell the freshmen from the seniors. There was a sense of, everyone's in this."
Shenbaum noted that his exercises are constructed to allow everyone to have what he calls their "you-the-man" moment. To some, it comes naturally. To others with a more laid-back disposition, it's a bigger challenge. Shenbaum said players like Johnson, Jarrod Polson and Marcus Lee were able to emerge when placed in the spotlight.
"Dakari was willing to get up and be funny and show his personality and take chances, and his teammates were immediately able to laugh with him, not at him," Shenbaum said.
He also noticed a sense of comfort with sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
"It's so clear that even just one year at Kentucky allows you to be a veteran," Shenbaum said. "They just didn't have that same look in their eyes last year that they did this year. You could sense, now they understand what this is all about."
All the way through, Shenbaum said he could tell there is "a real sense of support" among the team, even in its infantile stages of coming together.
"Because they want to get back to, you know," Shenbaum said, "winning ways."