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November 24, 2013

As Cats host Vikings, Johnson seeks improvement

Kentucky's 7-foot, 265-pound center is still getting up to speed after five college games.

Freshman Dakari Johnson, averaging six points and 4.2 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game, is figuring out how to adjust to what he calls the biggest difference between high school, where he won a national championship, and college, where he wants to win a national championship.

"Everything has to be quicker," Johnson said. "You have to get your shot up quicker. Everything is in constant movement."

Except when it's not.

Like at the free-throw line, where Johnson has made just 8 of 17 free throws, a 47.1 percent that must improve -- starting, preferably, against Cleveland State on Monday.

He has shot 100 free throws a day, recording how many he's made, and has made some small alterations to his form.

"Just not bringing it above my head," Johnson said. "Just keeping it in front of me. And just getting a softer touch."

Coach John Calipari showed Johnson clips of former Wildcat Enes Kanter, a similarly sized big man who went from shooting 66.7 percent on free throws his rookie season in the NBA to 79.5 percent last year and 79.5 percent so far this season.

Calipari said Kanter shortened his stroke and wants Johnson to do the same.

"He did it yesterday and it looked pretty good," Calipari said. "I think he'll be fine."

That's not the only change to Johnson's shooting Calipari wants him to make.

When Johnson gets the ball in the post, through a rebound or a pass, he tends to bring the ball down to his waist before rising up for a shot attempt.

Calipari wants him to keep the ball high from start to finish.

"You're 7-foot tall and you've got long arms," Calipari said. "Why would you bring it down and make yourself small? Because it's easier."

Johnson said he's still adapting to competing every second he's on the floor.

But with more limited opportunities than others -- his 66 total minutes this season place him nearly 30 minutes behind sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who has the sixth-most minutes -- Johnson must produce every chance he gets.

So far, he's done a pretty good job. When he's on the floor, he takes just over one-fifth of Kentucky's shots, according to KenPom.com.

That makes him an important, if slightly smaller, part of UK's frontcourt rotation.

"This team is the best post up team I've ever coached, my team," Calipari said after Tuesday's win over Texas Arlington. "We should be the best rebounding team or one of the best rebounding teams I've ever coached. But when you get it in the post, score the ball and if you get fouled, make free throws."

And he brings a more physical presence inside than the other, more wiry centers Kentucky uses in sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee.

"We bring different things to the table," Johnson said.

Yet despite being the biggest and bulkiest player on the team, Johnson has grabbed just nine offensive rebounds, the fifth-best per-minute rate on the team.

"He's gotta grab balls with two hands," Calipari said.

All told, Johnson is still adjusting to the speed of the game around him.

He has to catch up.

"He's gotta be more athletic," Calipari said. "Which means, be more alert before you guard, and before you catch the ball."

No. 4 KENTUCKY (4-1)
Coach: John Calipari (127-27 in fifth season at Kentucky; 530-165 in 22nd season overall)
Last game: Beat UT Arlington 105-76
Roster | Stats
Coach: Gary Waters (139-102 in seventh season at Cleveland State; 310-237 in 18th season overall)
Last game: Beat Robert Morris 87-74
Roster | Stats
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Andrew Harrison Fr. 6-6/215 11.0 3.6
G Aaron Harrison Fr. 6-6/218 12.4 2.6
F Marcus Lee Fr. 6-9/215 6.4 2.6
F James Young Fr. 6-6/215 14.2 2.8
F Julius Randle Fr. 6-9/250 20.8 13.6
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Charlie Lee Jr. 5-8/160 12.8 3.0
G Bryn Forbes So. 6-3/175 19.6 3.2
G Sebastian Douglas Jr. 6-4/205 7.0 3.8
G Anton Grady So. 6-8/225 8.6 5.8
F Marlin Mason Jr. 6-6/215 4.8 2.8
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: FSN (Dave Neal play-by play, Daymeon Fishback analyst)
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst, Matt Jones sideline); XM 199/Sirius 108
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: Kentucky by 22

Series Information
Series record: UK leads 1-0
At Lexington: First meeting
Coaches' records: Calipari 2-0 vs. Cleveland State; Waters 0-1 vs. Kentucky

Last meeting: Kentucky 73, Cleveland State 49 (Nov. 24, 2009, Cancun, Mexico)
John Wall scored 15 points and dished out six assists and DeMarcus Cousins had 14 points and seven rebounds to lead the Wildcats to a semifinal win at the Cancun Classic in a makeshift gym at the Moon Palace Resort. The Wildcats held the Vikings' Norris Cole to eight points on 3-for-11 shooting and pulled away in the second half ton win. UK led 35-27 at halftime but outscored Cleveland State 38-22 in the second half.

Game Storylines
1. Get Defensive: Kentucky has spent much of the week since its win against Texas Arlington focusing on defense, including at least one practice that was almost exclusively focused on D. Calipari has tinkered with a zone, but he's mostly focused on improving his team's ability to defend one-on-one on the perimeter. Calipari said his team is receptive to coaching. " But they're kids," he said. "And we've got a lot of learning to do and a lot of habits to break, and it's hard to break 'em -- and especially if I keep seeing on tape and it's the same."

2. A For Effort: Many of Kentucky's defensive woes, Calipari said, can be tracked back to trying. The Cats need to play with more effort, Calipari said, and he stressed to his team that playing hard is the key to having fun as well and more importantly to winning. Said Calipari: " If a team's effort level is far beyond yours, it will smash a talented group. Just will."

3. Warning Signs: Cleveland State's history against ranked opponents isn't encouraging for the Vikings' upset hopes on Monday. In 43 all-time meetings with ranked teams, Cleveland State is 6-37. Five of those six wins came away from home, including three true road games. The Vikings are 0-5 against top five teams and 1-14 against Top 10 teams. The program's only win against a Top team team came on Nov. 13, 2011, when Cleveland State beat No. 7 Vanderbilt 71-58.

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