No player on that team had ever played more than 20 minutes per game in college besides Mays and Ryan Harrow, and their playing experience didn’t come at UK. Kyle Wiltjer played just over 11 minutes per game in 2011-12, but other than that, this team had zero experience. Mays was the natural candidate to tackle the leadership void. He just wasn’t ready to do it right away.
“It was tough at first because this past year I played a position I had never played before really by playing the two-guard, and coming off a lot of screens and off-ball action as opposed to playing the point guard,” he says. “So I was learning the ropes and the roles myself. It was such a shaky season and a lot of guys weren’t buying into what Coach Cal was saying so I felt like I had to step up because I knew the message he was trying to get across.
“And if Coach Cal wasn’t getting the right response from them, I felt like it was my job as the older guy to be that leader and carry coach’s message to the other guys. I feel like toward the end of the season I really became comfortable in that leadership role, but I probably waited too late to get into that because I was not totally comfortable at first with my on-court role and our system.”
By mid-season, Mays became the undisputed leader of the team. He was the only player Calipari truly trusted, and despite the initial doubts about how much he would play, Mays ended up leading the team in minutes. The team had their ups and downs throughout the year, but without Mays the season would have been even worse.
He provided a sense of stability and calm to a team that was incredibly volatile, and his on-court game reflected that. Mays is not flashy and relies primarily on his high basketball IQ and deceptiveness to be effective. In a high-pressure environment, like playing with Kentucky, Mays demonstrated a remarkable amount of poise in the face of constant adversity, and gained not only the respect of Calipari, but most importantly from his younger teammates. At one point during the season, Archie Goodwin told the media that Mays was the type of person he would be in touch with for the rest of his life.
“It means a lot,” Mays says about his relationships with last year’s freshmen. “I’m the baby in my family, I have four older sisters, and I never had any brothers growing up. So the bond I was able to have with those guys, and their willingness to accept me immediately and treat me like their big brother, and they were my like my little brothers, was really special. It’s something I will always cherish.”
In addition to his relationships with Cal and the younger guys, Mays had a kinship with the fans. Kentucky fans are a special breed. As Mays says, “They live, die, eat, sleep and breathe Kentucky basketball.” They fill up Rupp Arena for every game, regardless of the opponent, and inject their energy into the team. They treat the players like royalty and stick with them through thick and thin. Yet even at a place rich with history, dealing with the one-and-done system presents its challenges.
One of the criticisms of a one-and-done is that the fans don’t get the opportunity to get attached to the players, and that the players don’t appreciate the opportunity they have to play college basketball. This conundrum is particularly difficult to handle at Kentucky. On the one hand, the one-and-done players have restored the program to the expected level of success, but on the other hand their time on campus is short-lived.
Despite winning a national championship, the 2011-12 team will never go into Kentucky lore quite like “The Unforgettables” who, along with Rick Pitino, rescued the team from the depth of probation and took it to a regional final before losing on the classic Christian Laettner shot. It is why players like Darius Miller, a Kentucky native who stuck around for four years, was universally beloved. The same goes for center Josh Harrellson, who was there for three years.
One season really isn’t enough to understand what Kentucky is all about. Mays was different. He had been elsewhere. He had seen other schools, so when he got to Kentucky he was able to appreciate all it had to offer. That’s why the fans grew attached to him. They even coined the nickname “Uncle Julius” for him. So while Mays was only there for one year, and may or may not make the NBA, his impact will be felt for a long time.
“To me, the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, but the experience was great,” Mays says. “That’s how college basketball should be. Even a lot of the guys at this workout were asking me what it was like to play there, and I’m sure they played at big schools with their own tradition, but Kentucky is one of a kind. There is nothing like it, you are like a rock-star living in Lexington and playing for UK. If I could have made the decision again, I would have made it 10 out of 10 times.”
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