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Kentucky PG Knight growing into leadership role

Brandon Knight is Kentucky's undisputed leader on the court, and that's not up for debate.

What the freshman point guard says, goes.

Coach John Calipari recently drove that point home to all the Wildcats.

After Knight watched teammate Eloy Vargas fumble away a rebound during Monday's win over Penn, he pulled Vargas aside and encouraged him to grab the ball with two hands.

Vargas, annoyed, started arguing with Knight. Seconds later Vargas was on the bench. The message from Calipari: Knight is the coach on the floor.

"He can say whatever he wants now," Calipari said of Knight. "Earlier in the season, he can't speak much ... now he is truly running the team and playing for everyone."

Knight's steep ascension up the learning curve has the 10th-ranked Wildcats (12-2) peaking as they prepare to open Southeastern Conference play on Saturday against Georgia (11-2).

Kentucky has reeled off seven straight wins, including impressive victories over rivals Indiana, Notre Dame and Louisville behind the play of Knight.

The early season mistakes he made have disappeared. He's no longer looking for his shot first. He's no longer trying to make the spectacular play every time down the floor. He no longer views defense as a bothersome chore.

The proof lies in the numbers. Knight is averaging 4.4 assists and only 3 turnovers a game during Kentucky's run. Compare that to the first seven games of the year when he gave it away nearly 5 times a night.

His shooting percentage is also in the rise, mostly because he's taking open shots. Knight is making 46 percent of his 3-pointers during the winning streak, a number Calipari credits to Knight shooting within the flow of the offense.

"Before he was playing for him," Calipari said. "He was trying to get his own shots. Every time he got it he was trying to make a fabulous play. He was breaking off the offense, so he had high turnovers, bad shot selection that led to dunks down at the other end."

That's not happening anymore, though Knight is quick to deflect any praise. He expected to play this way all along.

"I'm just doing what Cal says," Knight said. "I know that he wants me to be a leader and try to set an example. I'm not trying to do the impossible all the time."

Good thing, because at times during the first month of the season it appeared Knight was trying too hard to live up to the example set by predecessor John Wall. He pressed when the Wildcats struggled, attempting to do too much.

He was a miserable 3 of 15 from the field with no assists and eight turnovers in a drubbing at the hands of UConn in the finals of the Maui Invitational. He was a so-so 5 of 12 from the floor with six turnovers in a tough loss at North Carolina.

The losses taught Knight something McDonald's All-Americans typically don't learn in high school: Patience. He had a series of talks with Calipari about trying to define his role. Calipari found himself repeating the same phrases he used during similar discussions with former stars like Wall, Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose.

The coach told Knight to calm down, that he had Calipari's trust.

"When I had the other point guards I had, they did the same thing," Calipari said. "It's what they do in (high) school. It's how they played. How do you change them overnight and tell them to do it this way? He's got to get comfortable with it. Just in the last three weeks ... the total change of his game has been phenomenal. He's talking. He never talked before."

Mostly because he didn't have to. Knight was so dynamic at Pine Crest in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — he's the second all-time leading scorer in state history — he didn't have to talk. He just had to shoot.

Not anymore. Calipari has told him repeatedly to speak up, that a team full of freshmen and inexperienced players needs a leader and he's it.

That doesn't just go for the offense. While hardly a lock-down defender — Calipari joked that Louisville scored 85 percent of its points against Knight during Kentucky's win last week — Knight has made a concerted effort to make sure the Wildcats are communicating.

Three days after his defensive troubles against Louisville, Knight's defense helped Kentucky overcome a shaky first half to run away from Penn.

"We're on him about his defense and you know what, he went out and said, 'I'm going to guard better,' and he did," Calipari said.

And he's doing it without getting in foul trouble. Knight hasn't been whistled for over two fouls in Kentucky's last five games. It's good news for a thin team that needs him on the floor if it wants to make a run at a second straight SEC title.

"It seems like he's letting the game come to him," said teammate Jon Hood. "He's controlling things a little bit better. ... It's growing up. John (Wall) did the same thing last year."