Inside College Hoops: Kentucky has plan to wake up Skal Labissiere

Skal Labissiere started this season as the player projected by some to be the first overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft. And he could still become that, in theory. But his most recent performance was a zero-point, zero-rebound effort in Kentucky’s win over Arizona State last weekend. So, undeniably, things aren’t going quite the way they were planned.

John Calipari’s solution?

A sleep-over!

“He’s getting it from all angles, [and] I just want him to know, and my wife wants him to know, that we love you, we’re here for you,” Calipari said while explaining the motivation behind Labissiere spending a night at the Calipari home this week. “A lot of times these kids have so much stuff on them they become paralyzed. Then you see a kid that can really, really play … and he’s not playing at all, and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute.’ And so we had him over. My wife made him a great breakfast in the morning. We talked to him.”

Whether the sleep-over will have an impact is anybody’s guess.

Regardless, this much is clear: Calipari has recognized whatever physical limitations Labissiere might’ve brought with him to college have been compounded by an overworked head. The Haitian immigrant who went to high school in Memphis is thinking too much and about too many things, and the mind-clutter rooted in the inherent pressures of playing at UK and trying to prove worthy of those NBA Draft projections has gotten to Labissiere.

So Calipari invited him over.

Sat him down.

Calipari’s wife, Ellen, cooked breakfast.

They talked.

And the hope is that Labissierre will now start to ease up on himself, relax, play harder, think less and simply let his natural ability produce positive things. Again, we’ll have to wait and see if the pseuodo-therapy session proves impactful. But that’s the storyline heading into Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic in Brooklyn — whether Labissierre, a 6-foot-11 forward, can and will provide quality minutes in the fourth-ranked Wildcats’ matchup with Ohio State.

Skal Labissiere (USATSI)
Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere has struggled recently. (USATSI)

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BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: While Kentucky-Ohio State is technically the headliner of Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic, the better matchup is actually North Carolina-UCLA. The Tar Heels are ranked 11th and winners of five of their past six. The Bruins are ranked 22nd and winners of five straight. And if UCLA wins, Steve Alford’s team would then own victories over the schools ranked first, second and ninth in the preseason AP poll, which would obviously be a wonderful thing to have on your resume come Selection Sunday.

NEXT BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: If you want to start your day with a great game, Saturday presents an excellent opportunity. Jay Wright’s 12th-ranked Villanova Wildcats will be at John Paul Jones Arena to play No. 8 Virginia in a contest that tips at noon ET. Both are one-loss teams. Both are good enough to win their leagues.

NEXT-NEXT BEST GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Butler-Purdue is one of four games scheduled for Saturday between a pair of ranked teams. Chris Holtmann’s Bulldogs are ranked 17th. Matt Painter’s Boilermakers are ranked ninth. And it’ll be interesting to see which team is better at what it’s best at, meaning can Butler’s top-five offense score enough on Purdue’s top-ranked defense to record an upset?

FUN GAME BETWEEN TWO UNRANKED TEAMS: Wichita State has Fred VanVleet back, and it shows. The Shockers have won three straight, including wins over UNLV and Utah. And now they have their toughest road game to date — a true road game Saturday against a Seton Hall team that’s 8-2 and ranked 55th at KenPom thanks, in part, to wins over Ole Miss and Georgia and a resume featuring just one loss outside of KenPom’s top 40.

ONE PLAYER TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Duke’s Brandon Ingram is transitioning nicely from great prospect to great player. (Yes, there’s a difference.) The 6-foot-9 freshman is averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in the Blue Devils’ past three games, all of which were double-digit wins. So he’s suddenly averaging 14.9 points and 5.4 rebounds for a Duke team that enters Saturday’s matchup with Utah ranked seventh nationally and on a seven-game winning streak. DraftExpress, by the way, now projects Ingram to be the second overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

FIVE THINGS WORTH NOTING

1. Once upon a time, if I told you there was a game scheduled between two ranked teams from Texas, neither of which is Texas, that might’ve been surprising. But here we are. No. 16 Baylor will play at No. 24 Texas A&M on Saturday night. The fact that the Aggies are a middle-of-the-pack defensive-rebounding team nationally, and Baylor has Rico Gathers, could end up being a determining factor.

2. One thing a smart man told me once that I’ve always remembered is that the worst thing a coach can do is lose a game he’s supposed to win right before he has to play a game he’s supposed to lose … because that’s how losing streaks start. And I mention that now because UNLV’s Dave Rice just lost a game he was supposed to win (at home to Arizona State when his team was favored by nine points and up 14 in the second half) and is now headed into a game on Saturday that he’s supposed to lose (at 13th-ranked Arizona).

3. Northern Iowa already owns a win over the preseason No. 1 (North Carolina) and, on Saturday, the Panthers can record one over a team that’s undefeated and currently ranked fifth (Iowa State). Granted, UNI will be an underdog. But Ben Jacobson’s team was also an underdog when they beat UNC. And Iowa State will be playing for just the second time without Nazareth Mitrou-Long. And it’s not like Iowa didn’t have the Cyclones down by a million last week at Hilton. So this is an instate matchup worthy of your attention.

4. It’s always cool when VCU gets a national brand to visit the Siegel Center. So Saturday’s game with 23rd-ranked Cincinnati should be fun … and dominated by the defenses. UC is ranked 14th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. VCU is ranked 30th.

5. Indiana has been operating off of the national radar since falling to 5-3 with losses to Wake Forest, UNLV and Duke. But the Hoosiers have won three straight and are now ranked 26th at KenPom thanks largely to their No. 4 offensive-efficiency rating. They’re shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range (that ranks sixth nationally) and 60.5 percent inside the arc (that ranks third nationally). IU plays Notre Dame on Saturday at Bankers Life.

FINAL THOUGHT: I’ll be in New York this weekend. And, if you’re a college basketball fan living in the area, it really is a terrific place to spend this weekend before Christmas.

Obviously, there’s great shopping. So you can clear that holiday list.

More to the point, though, is that the greater New York area will be the hub of college basketball on Saturday. Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA and Ohio State are at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Wichita State and Seton Hall are at the Prudential Center in Newark. And Duke and Utah are at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.

That’s six top-75 KenPom teams playing within 15 miles of each other.

(Not bad, huh?)

The only problem is that all four games — North Carolina-UCLA, Kentucky-Ohio State, Wichita State-Seton Hall and Duke-Utah — tip in the afternoon. So you basically have to pick. But you have great options. And that’s the point I’m trying to make.

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