Ohio St.-Kentucky Preview
(AP) - The early reviews on 6-foot-11 Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere have gone something like this: He doesn't like physical contact. Plays too straight up. Won't play near the basket.
Some or all of those observations have been evident at one time or another during a four-game slump in which Labissiere has totaled 18 points and seven rebounds. One of his more forgettable performances was in a 72-58 win over Arizona State last Saturday: no points and no rebounds before fouling out in 13 minutes.
John Calipari expected some growing pains for the Haitian native who moved to the U.S. following the devastating 2010 earthquake. The coach even warned it might take time for him to develop the physical and mental skills needed to become a low-post presence.
Labissiere has put in some extra training this week, and Calipari is looking to see how he responds when No. 4 Kentucky (9-1) faces Ohio State (5-5) on Saturday in the CBSSports Classic in Brooklyn, New York.
It's the first meeting between the schools since then-No. 11 Kentucky beat top-ranked Ohio State 62-60 in the regional semifinals of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes, who don't have one senior on their roster and start two sophomores and a freshman, are beginning to play better with three wins in four games.
Calipari knows what that's like as he's trying to get the most out of his latest class of prized recruits.
''I would tell you, if they're young they're probably going through what we're going through,'' he said.
Labissiere's struggles aren't anything Calipari hasn't seen with other big men.
''He will probably take that step back before he starts taking those steps forward, similar to Josh (Harrellson),'' said Calipari, who hosted Labissiere overnight at his house to reassure him that everything will work out. ''He's going to do fine.
''He hasn't been in the kind of condition you need to be in to perform at a high level. It's hard. A lot of it is mental, so you do things to make it tough where he has to convince himself I can do this.''
Trainers have worked to bulk up Labissiere's 225-pound frame, and Calipari has had assistants swatting at him while he holds the ball in practice. Labissiere's high school coach, Terry Tippett, sees progress but believes bulking up is one step toward him transitioning to low-post play.
But Tippett said Labissiere is not soft.
''I didn't need him in the low post because we needed points and let him shoot from the perimeter,'' Tippett said. ''He's just in a new position. Some teams would put four guys on him and push him around, but one-on-one, he'd play better against other big men.''
But before anyone can help Labissiere, he first has to develop that willingness to battle inside with opponents preparing to throw bodies at him, former Kentucky star Kenny ''Sky'' Walker said.
''The key word is willing,'' Walker said. ''He's got to use his size, length and quickness to his advantage, but he's got to be willing to fight when he needs to and be tough when he needs to be.''
Ohio State rebounded from a 20-point loss at Connecticut last Saturday by beating Northern Illinois 67-54 on Wednesday.
''We're still looking for that consistent game all the way through, we had a six-point lead in the first half and that has been a theme of this season like in the UConn game we would go on a good run and start to cut into the lead and then would give it back to them,'' coach Thad Matta said. ''We just don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot, I just don't want us to beat ourselves.''
Jae'Sean Tate had 17 points and 10 rebounds and fellow sophomore Keita Bates-Diop added 14 and 10 on Wednesday.
''For once tonight, Jae'Sean Tate during a timeout was very vocal,'' Matta said. ''I hadn't seen that before. That energized us a little bit and connected us a little bit.
''After (the game) I said, `That's who you are and that's who you need to be.'''