Is playing basketball for Kentucky really like learning algebra?

EJ Montgomery (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

Do you remember that difficult algebra class you had in school? Remember how hard it was to understand? And it’s not like you had never done math before but this was unlike any math you had seen before. It was a big step up. And the teacher wasn’t just interested in if you achieved the right answer; she wanted to see the process you went through to get there.

I remember thinking, “I will never understand how to do this”, but then one day, as I was working through a problem, something clicked and it was as if a spotlight had been turned on to what I was missing. Then, seemingly by magic, it all became clear.

Well, that’s what these UK Basketball players are going through right now. It’s not like they haven’t played basketball before. But not this kind of basketball. Not basketball where every opponent you meet is playing like it’s an NCAA qualification game – because for most teams it is. Their game against UK is a resume builder if they can win it – just ask the Evansville Purple Aces.

So for guys like Tyrese Maxey and Johnny Juzang, who are struggling to make the same shots they have made their entire basketball life, the spotlight hasn’t come on yet. And for guys like EJ Montgomery, who are looking for consistency in their game, they’ve never done that at this level before.

It’s hard on a player’s confidence level to come out and score 25 points one game against your opponent who may have been physically overmatched and then come out the next game and score zero points against a team that physically matches up well. Finding consistency from game to game against all levels of competition is difficult for any player to achieve – let alone players who have never had to do it at this level before.

But the good news is for guys like Tyrese Maxey and EJ Montgomery, the struggle is what makes the player. Struggling in games in November and December are what allow players to be the best version of themselves when March rolls around.

Facing adversity, getting a lead only to lose it and having to build it back up again, playing against a variety of defenses and playing styles are all invaluable experiences when tournament time comes around. And all the while the UK coaches are hammering away during each one of those learning experiences.

John Calipari explained some of the hammering that takes place as he recently talked about Tyrese Maxey’s struggles.

He said, “He’s just learning and, again, I keep telling him, you cannot avoid contact and try to flip balls. You’re not playing St. Aloysius anymore. These dudes, when you go like that, they block it. And if you go like that, the official’s not going to call a foul. He’s not,” Calipari said.

“

If you go into him like he did the two times he went into them, they will call that a foul. He’s never played that way. Everything is a throw and a flip. They give him no call. So, we’ve been all over it, and he’s responded.”

Like your algebra teacher from days gone by, Calipari believes the process is just as important as the result. Without the pain of adversity there is no incentive to listen to the coach, change the process and become a better, more experienced player.

That’s how any process works. Repetition after repetition, with better individual results each time, builds confidence in player. And games where a player shoots nine times and misses all nine, as Maxey did Saturday against Georgia Tech, but continues to play hard and help the team in other areas are what become invaluable tools to use in the NCAA Tournament when poor shooting games can knock a team out.

Unless everyone pulls together and finds a way to put points on the scoreboard through fighting, scratching and clawing to overcome the adversity, there is no next game in a single elimination tournament. Survive and advance becomes the only way to win.

And these difficult games against teams like Georgia Tech – like those algebra lessons in school – are painful at the time they are occurring but the experiences are invaluable to help build a championship basketball team.

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