By Gary B. Graves
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
INDIANAPOLIS _ First came the leg injury that delayed Trey Lyles’ inclusion in Kentucky’s platoon system until the fall. A midseason bout of strep throat followed, sidelining him for three games.
The impressive performances between those absences are why coach John Calipari says the 6-foot-10 Lyles is the “X-factor” for the top-ranked Wildcats.
Several players have worn that label this season for Kentucky (38-0). But it particularly fits Lyles because his athleticism makes him difficult to defend or beat, creating another matchup problem for opponents already struggling to contain Wildcats 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns.
“I’m just going out there and doing what he (Calipari) asks me to do,” said Lyles, who has no problem with the X-factor label. “He tells me all the time to just execute and play hard.”
Lyles has been playing some of his best basketball in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 11.1 points and 7.3 rebounds. He is a threat that Wisconsin must neutralize in Saturday’s Final Four rematch in Indianapolis, Lyles’ hometown. The winner will face whoever advances in the Michigan State-Duke matchup in the other semifinal game.
Kentucky’s frontcourt is a challenge for most teams and Lyles’ versatility further complicates things. His quickness allows him to play inside and on the perimeter. His 11-point, 11-rebound effort in a 64-51, round-of-32 victory over Cincinnati included a dunk and a spin move for a basket that helped the Wildcats retain momentum against the physical Bearcats.
He’s playing small forward, but can slide over to power forward, or even centre depending on the matchup. Lyles tries to get Kentucky’s other post players involved, though Calipari believes his strength is finishing, not facilitating.
“He likes to think he’s a play-maker,” the coach said this week. “Drives me absolutely crazy. His playmaking is turnover-making.
“When you talk about finishing around the basket, when you talk about one-dribble pull-ups on the run, you talk about being able to avoid and finish near the rim, making free throws, making pressure free throws, he is our X-factor. He’s the one guy that can separate our team.”
Lyles helped bring the Wildcats together after junior forward Alex Poythress’ season-ending knee injury in mid-December.
Originally playing on Kentucky’s second platoon, Lyles was thrust into the starting lineup not long after he had finally started getting in the flow of things following his recovery from the leg injury that made him a bystander during the team’s summer Bahamas exhibition tour.
But just as Lyles’ game was taking shape, he had to miss three games at midseason with what was initially described as an undisclosed illness. Calipari tried to have fun with all the questions, turning Lyles’ absence into a “Where’s Waldo?” type of situation.
Lyles eventually revealed it was strep throat, an illness he endures twice a year that requires isolation to avoid contaminating others.
Despite the timing of the setback, Lyles’ father, Tom, remained confident his son would return stronger and better. He demonstrated that with back-to-back career highs of 18 points against Mississippi State and ranked Arkansas, and hasn’t looked back.
“He’s a natural scorer and a natural rebounder, and that’s something he’s always prided his game on,” the father said by phone. “Seeing him do that with the amount of confidence he has and the effort he’s put in is good to see.”
A lot of people in Indianapolis are eager to see if Lyles can follow up winning last year’s Class 4A high school state title with Arsenal Tech at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with an NCAA championship just a few blocks away at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tom Lyles is preparing for a crush of family and supporters while encouraging his son to stay focused.
That’s not a problem for Lyles. He’s motivated to move on from what he thinks was a subpar nine-point, five-rebound effort in the 68-66 regional final win over Notre Dame.
Kentucky still managed to cut down the nets and advance.
“It was great, being out there and having fun,” Lyles said of the postgame celebration. “There was a little relief after that game, but we’re focused on the next one now.”