LEXINGTON, Ky.—John Wall came out of Kentucky's rough and tumble rivalry game with Louisville as the cool head that prevailed at a key moment, scoring six straight points after the Cardinals gained their first and only second-half lead.
That was after a first half in which Wall scored only three points and had Louisville coach Rick Pitino waiting for the freshman to budge—to show some sort of negative emotion. That he didn't led Pitino to draw comparisons between Wall and NBA stars Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
“He wasn't having a great night, and the great thing about that young man is it never bothered him,” Pitino said. “He never lost focus, he stayed with it, and made two killer plays for them. That is the sign of a great one, and he certainly is.”
But it took Wall's freshman teammate DeMarcus Cousins only 45 seconds to earn his stripes as an out-of-control big man with a temper to boot.
Cousins, along with Louisville players Jared Swopshire and Reginald Delk, each picked up technicals with 19:15 left in the first half of Saturday's game. Of the three, it was Cousins who ended up on the receiving end of critics, who suggested that his an elbow to Swopshire's face warranted an ejection from the game.
Cousins claimed he was just going for the ball, and Wall said it's hard to fault the intensity.
“I don't think it's really fair,” Wall said. “You can't help it if he's the type of player like he is, where he lets his emotion into his game. I think teams are going after him trying to foul him hard or try talk junk to him just to get him out of it.”
Why would Wall be so quick to defend Cousins, outside of his obvious role as a teammate? Because four years ago, when Wall was beginning his trek up the recruiting ladder, he was what Cousins is today.
Simple things—like losing 50-50 balls and taking hard fouls—got to Wall. Then he said he learned better.
“I was emotional,” Wall said. “If someone fouled me hard, I'd get up and want a fight. But that's something you can't do. College coaches start looking at you, and people start judging you by that.”
Now Wall is the model of cool for his teammates.
When he finished the first half against Louisville with three points on 1-of-5 shooting, 4 turnovers to 2 assists, and generally neutralized by the Cardinals' gameplan, Wall didn't beg for calls.
He didn't fret. Didn't panic, either. Wall just played his game and went on to score 14 of his 17 points in the game's last 20 minutes, leading Kentucky over Louisville 71-62.
After that type of performance by Wall, Cousins said he can learn a lot from his teammate. Wall never loses his cool—even in practice—ever, according to Cousins.
“He might get real frustrated, but he never shows it,” Cousins said. “I learn from him a lot because looking at him, it makes me try to do what he does sometimes as far as being strong and not losing my cool or something like that.”
Cousins' technical foul 45 seconds into the Louisville game opened him up for criticisms, but overall, Kentucky coach John Calipari applauded his freshman big man for improving his attitude since the beginning of the season.
Like Wall, Calipari said other teams may gameplan for Cousins' temper. However, outside of the 19:15 mark of the first half, Calipari said he thought Cousins handled himself well.
“He's kind of like a kid I had at Memphis named Joey Dorsey, where the other team used to do whatever they could to get his goat because they knew he'd lose it,” Calipari said. “Well, I think Louisville came in to try to get this kid's goat. We told him they were going to do that. They did it as we walked in and off the court, and the kid never budged.
“He said, 'it's not bothering me. I'm going to play.'”
That's what Cousins did, to the tune of a team-high 18 points and 18 rebounds.
Wall said the whole team—players and coaches—are in on the effort to reign back Cousins' emotions, and performances like Cousins had Saturday are ensuring the work has been worth it.
“Usually you see DeMarcus get fouled hard, he gets up and he's ready to fight,” Wall said. “Now he controls himself—he's is maturing to the man we know he can be. He's turned into a different player than probably you've seen.”