One of the more overlooked aspects of John Calipari's recent "reboot" for the Kentucky Wildcats was turning over more in-game decisions to assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Tony Barbee.
Payne has been charged with making offensive adjustments and substitutions, while Barbee has led UK's defensive efforts.
Leading up to Kentucky's game Tuesday night at Missouri, Payne shared some of his thoughts on the role and what he expects from the Wildcats.
"We are demanding as coaches. This is a demanding program, and when you step on the court, you’re expected to play a certain way," said Payne, who has been on Calipari's staff since the 2010-11 season. "Lately, you’ve been hearing coach talk about confidence and energy. You’re expected to win when you hit the floor. As hard as we work on your games, the skill development, the going over the film sessions, there’s no reason you should play basketball and not be confident."
Two players who have been struggling with confidence issues of late are freshman forward Wenyen Gabriel and sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe. The latter may have had his worst game of the season on Saturday at Georgia when he fouled out after going 4-for-12 from the field, 0-for-3 from 3-point range and turned the ball over four times in only 24 minutes of play.
Payne says both players will have to show more confidence or join him with a seat on the bench. They'll also owe him some extra work at practice.
"The last game, as soon as the game was over, Wenyen Gabriel said, 'What time do I have to run tomorrow?' If you're not on that floor playing with confidence, I'm running you. It's that simple, and they know." Payne said.
As for Briscoe, whose confidence seems to be tied to his inconsistent jump shot rather than his strengths as a distributor, defender and rebounder, Payne said: "If Isaiah shoots the ball – he just walked by – and none of his family members believes that shot is going in, and he shoots it like he doesn’t believe it’s going in, he’s running. So he better believe 100 percent that he’s making that shot. That’s a layup, that’s a jump shot, that’s a free throw, that’s defensive confidence. Whatever it is, he better do it with confidence."
And confidence doesn't necessarily originate in games, Payne added.
"That confidence comes from being in the gym, having the mental toughness to execute what we’ve practiced, and then doing it in the game. It’s no different," he said.
One player who's not battling a crisis of confidence is senior guard Dominique Hawkins, who might serve as a good role model for Gabriel and Briscoe at this time.
Hawkins is not one of Kentucky's better shooters (currently at 37 percent from the field and 28 percent from the 3-point arc) but he hasn't let that affect his passing, defense or willingness to take a shot with confidence during a key moment in the game.
"I can’t begin to tell you how happy we are all with Dominique as coaches," Payne said. "Dominique Hawkins brings a little something different -- more energy at times, defensive toughness at times. Lately, he’s been our best on-ball defender."
Those things have been reflected in 45 minutes of playing time off the bench in UK's last two games against Tennessee and Georgia. Hawkins responded with 19 points (6 of 11 FG), four rebounds, two assists and only one turnover.
"He deserves this," Payne said. "He shouldn’t take second fiddle to any player on this team because he’s just as good. He’s playing that way.
"The same goes for Mychal Mulder, Derek Willis. Derek Willis had 12 rebounds last game. He can do that anytime he wants. What is preventing him from playing that way? It’s all mental. It’s all it is.
"Lately, I think Wenyen has a lacked a little bit confidence wise and hasn’t given us what he’s capable of. So has Isaiah. But we need them. We need every one of these guys to play with unbelievable energy, unbelievable confidence and be efficient."
No. 11 Kentucky (22-5, 12-2 SEC) returns to action Tuesday at Missouri (7-19, 2-12 SEC). Tipoff is slated for 9 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.