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Dakari Johnson Vital to UK's NCAA Tournament Run

Dakari Johnson has emerged as one of Kentucky’s most emotional players, and he knows his teammates feed off the positive energy with which he beams when he makes a tough shot through contact or high-fives a teammate during a dead ball. Only recently, though, has Johnson inspired that emotion in his teammates.

He figures to be an important part of Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament opener Friday against a physical—if not tall—No. 9 Kansas State team.

Johnson has looked like a new player over the past several weeks. The 7-foot, 265-pounder appears to have trimmed up, and he also appears much more confident when given the ball in the post. He’s 16 of 27 from the field in his last six games and has 29 rebounds in that span in 106 minutes played.

Though he didn’t have a great statistical game Sunday in the 61-60 SEC tournament final loss to No. 1 Florida, Calipari had Johnson on the floor for much of Kentucky’s 14-0 run in the second half playing alongside fellow 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. The Wildcats started the run with Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein on the floor. Kentucky scored the first four points of the drive, and when Billy Donovan called timeout, Calipari put Johnson in for Randle.

Kentucky scored 10 points on its next five possessions. Johnson wasn’t a huge part of that run statistically—a two-man game played with Aaron Harrison netted Harrison a wide-open three and gave Johnson an assist—but he had to be accounted for, and Cauley-Stein took advantage of that. On one defensive play, Florida’s Casey Prather drove into the lane from the left elbow. Johnson picked him up, and Prather went up with the ball at about seven feet. Johnson stuck his arms straight up, forcing Prather to put the shot up with less strength. Cauley-Stein came in from the right and blocked the shot from behind Johnson, starting a runout that ended in an easy Aaron Harrison layup.

Accounting for that size is difficult for any team, even Florida, but Kentucky does not handicap itself defensively with both 7-footers because of how well Cauley-Stein can range out to guard on the perimeter.

Johnson is also deceptively athletic. Oftentimes, teammates describe him as “physical,” which offers the implication that he’s not athletic. In one sequence in the second half of the SEC semifinal against Georgia, 6-7 Brandon Morris started to drive into the lane. Johnson jabbed in to double-team Morris with Young at the top of the key. Morris tried to float a pass over Johnson into a man at the baseline.

Johnson ranged back and intercepted the ball over his shoulder—commentators across all media would have recalled Cauley-Stein’s days as a wide receiver were he the one to make the play—and dished to Andrew Harrison. Johnson sprinted the floor and ran for the right block. Johnson’s position was enough to draw attention away from Aaron Harrison in the right corner. Andrew passed to Aaron for an easy transition three.

“Dakari’s got sneaky bounce low-key, too,” Cauley-Stein said, praising Johnson’s athleticism. “He’s not as flat-footed as people think. Dakari can run. People say that he couldn’t run coming in, but he does a lot of conditioning to change his body a lot, too. That’s definitely helped. He’s athletic, too. If he gets the ball around the rim, most of the time it’s going to go in.”

Johnson has been a fixture in Kentucky’s starting lineup since the beginning of February when Cauley-Stein’s struggles were at their worst. The two now split time fairly evenly, and Calipari suggested after the Florida game Sunday he may use the two together more often. Some of Johnson’s stats leap off the page: His 18.7 offensive rebounding percentage would be second in Division I had he played a high enough percentage of Kentucky’s available minutes to qualify for the leaderboard (he’s played 30.8 of Kentucky’s available minutes). Johnson couldn’t keep up at times when the season started. He either looked winded or unable to keep up competitively; now, neither factor is present. Foul trouble sometimes persists, and Calipari has expressed his concern with having Johnson on the floor in some close-game situations because of his 45.8 free-throw percentage.

But in a six-game tournament that asks so much of players emotionally, Johnson will be crucial in willing his teammates forward.

“The way he plays now—before, he played, it was almost sad. Like, he was sad playing,” Willie Cauley-Stein said. “He wasn’t playing with the energy he’s playing with now. He was getting ragged on a lot by the coaches in the beginning, and now it’s like he’s totally changed. It’s great to see that he’s playing with so much fun and passion. Now it just spreads through everyone else, as you see. It’s contagious.”

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

Photo: Dakari Johnson (James Pennington)