Improvement of freshman Fox leads Kentucky to Elite 8

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Kentucky coach John Calipari can point to the reason why freshman guard De'Aaron Fox has blossomed into the Wildcats' offensive leader at the most crucial time of the season.

''What he's learned to do is play physical,'' Calipari said of Fox. ''Not take a hit and fly and throw a ball. He's learned to play through bumps. He's learned to work. He's understands the grind now.''

Fox is coming off the best scoring game of the NCAA Tournament with his career-high 39 points helping Kentucky (32-5) move to its accustomed place in the regional finals Sunday playing top-seeded North Carolina in the South.

This postseason, Fox has led or shared leading-scorer honors for Kentucky in every game, including tallying 39 points in Friday's 86-75 victory over No. 3 seed UCLA. His 39 points also were the most ever by a freshman in the NCAA Tournament and was the best by a Kentucky player in this tournament since Tayshaun Prince had 41 in 2002.

The Fox also completely outplayed the Bruins' vaunted freshman guard Lonzo Ball, who managed only 10 points.

Ball declared for the NBA draft after Friday's loss.

Fox, on the other hand, has more immediate concerns than where he will play basketball next year. He's preparing for the Tar Heels (30-7). Kentucky defeated Carolina 103-100 on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas.

''We're still playing basketball, so I'm not talking about leaving,'' Fox said. ''If things go as planned, we still have three games left.''

Fox had 24 points and 10 assists in that December win over the Tar Heels. In the six postseason games including the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the 6-foot-3 guard from Houston has averaged 23 points, while connecting on 57 percent of his shots.

''There is a reason he is who he is, and the hype he has around him,'' UCLA guard Bryce Alford said after Friday's loss to the Wildcats. ''He's very, very talented. . It's tough to stop a guy who has as good of a mid-range game as he does. That's a lost art in college basketball, and it's very hard to stop.''

Well, his teammates and Calipari did stop Fox on Saturday from talking to the media. After a couple answers about planning for the national title that could make the Carolina bulletin board, the rest of the Wildcats lightheartedly shut him down.

''Stop. He's done talking,'' Calipari said, later adding. ''When he's excited, he's Chatty Cathy. He talks, just like he just did.''

Each time someone asked Fox a question, Calipari or a teammate interrupted to say the guard was not allowed to answer any more questions.

When Fox started well against UCLA, it was Calipari who didn't say much. The Wildcats took a 36-33 halftime lead into the locker room with Fox scoring 15 points and making seven of his 12 shots.

''All I did at halftime was say: `Guys. Are you watching this game?' and they said yeah,'' Calipari recounted. ''I said: `Ok good. You know we are playing through De'Arron Fox. The rest of you take a back seat and play off of him.'''

Fox's teammates have seen his improvement up close. The Tar Heels also have taken notice.

Junior Justin Jackson, North Carolina's leading scorer, said Fox showed signs of being good when they played for the same AAU team in Texas.

''I didn't know he was going to have this type of impact right away,'' Jackson said. ''He's gotten better and better as the season has gone on. . We have to slow him down as much as possible. He's fast. He's explosive. And when he gets going, the rest of the team gets going.''

Calipari says any of his Wildcats can take over a game at any time, but it's been Fox leading the postseason parade.

''At the end of the day, (Calipari) is putting me in position. My teammates put me in great positions,'' Fox said. ''And all I've got to do is execute.''

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

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