LEXINGTON, Ky. – Before he ended his official visit and left DeMarcus Cousins' home last spring, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari wanted to make one thing clear.
"No one," Calipari told the nation's second-ranked recruit, "is going to average 30 points for me. No one."
Cousins was fine with that.
Heck, following the Wildcats' first practice last week, the 6-foot-11 forward said he won't even care if he fails to average 20.
"Some players go to a school where they can score a bunch of points and put up big numbers," Cousins said. "But when the season is over, they're the same player as they were when it started.
"I'm not going to be like that. I came here to get better. I came here to learn."
That has to be good news for Kentucky fans, who spent the offseason listening to as many stories about Cousins' poor attitude as his standout play.
In the summer of 2008, Cousins got benched during a high school all-star game for arguing with one of his coaches. A few months later he was ejected from his team’s regular-season finale for slinging a player to the floor after the two got tangled. Following the game, Cousins reportedly left the locker room to confront a group of heckling fans and had to be restrained.
A few weeks later Cousins got whistled for a technical foul during a loss in the state semifinals. As a result, sportswriters in Alabama failed to select Cousins as the state's player of the year.
"He's one of the top-10 players in the country … but he's not good enough to be Mr. Basketball in Alabama?" LeFlore High School coach Otis Hughley told the Birmingham News. "C'mon. You know that's not right."
Cousins doesn't apologize for his temper or his rough, physical style of play. If anything, he said he thrives on it.
"On the court," Cousins said, "I'm a badass. I'm mean. I'm there to cut your throat. I'm not there to be nice. Off the court, I'm cool. I'm chill. I play around with you. I'm nothing like people say I am. Anyone that's taken the time to get to know me will tell you that.”
"But on the court … like I said, I'm there to cut your throat."
Controversial as his statements may be, Cousins' brash demeanor is much-needed at Kentucky, where he’s part of a six-man recruiting class that could end up being one of the best in the history of college basketball.
Point guard John Wall – the country's top-ranked prospect ahead of No. 2 Cousins – is as talented as they come, but he'll lead more through his actions than his words. Junior forward Patrick Patterson averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds last season, but he's more studious and businesslike than brazen.
Cousins plays the game as if the opponent just insulted his mother.
Cousins dunks during the McDonald’s All-American Game.
(AP Photo/McDonald’s,Henry Ray Abframs)
Just ask Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua, who was on the receiving end of a few Cousins hip-checks and butt-bumps during a recent practice. Cousins was told to establish position in the paint against Antigua, who held a padded shield against his chest as he guarded the freshman. It hardly mattered, though, as Cousins nearly sent him flying across the baseline at the Joe Craft Center.
In some ways Cousins resembles Joey Dorsey, who helped lead Calipari's Memphis team to the 2008 national title game. The only difference is that, instead of being just a big, physical presence, Cousins is a top-flight athlete with far superior basketball skills.
Patterson, who will team with Cousins to form one of the nation's top frontcourts, said Cousins gives the Wildcats "swagger."
"He's not really angry or mad all the time," Patterson said, "but he plays with that anger and fire and frustration. He leaves it on the court. He's not a bad person, but he's not going to let up. He's not going to let you see the light of day. Even when he’s beating you down, he's still not going to stop."
Patterson has also been impressed with Cousins' athleticism and arsenal of post moves.
"He's got such good footwork for a freshman," Patterson said. "And he's not afraid to dribble the ball. He'll grab it off the rim and take off down the court without hesitation. He's just so naturally strong. Even when he was young and skinny, I bet he was strong."
Cousins still has his youth, but these days he's anything but frail. Cousins said he weighed 290 pounds when he reported to campus this summer but is now down to 270 thanks to workouts with Kentucky's strength staff and a new diet.
"I cut out fried foods – mainly fried chicken and fried oysters," said Cousins, laughing.
Cousins said he's enjoying the attention that he and fellow recruits such as Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton are receiving in Lexington. Almost everywhere they go, the Wildcats are asked to sign autographs or pose for pictures.
Kentucky failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 17 years last season under former coach Billy Gillispie, which means Wildcats fans are hungrier than ever for a good season. Cousins said he, Wall and Bledsoe were recently asked to pose for a picture with one student who was so nervous he was shaking.
"That's probably the craziest thing that's ever happened to me," Cousins said. "I've never seen something like that before. I wanted to hug him. It makes me feel good. We feel loved and we feel wanted, but that also means the expectations are through the roof."
Indeed, most preseason polls have the Wildcats ranked between No. 1 and No. 5. One season after settling for an appearance in the NIT, Kentucky is a Final Four favorite, and Cousins is one of the main reasons.
"That doesn't bother me," Cousins said. "People have placed high expectations on me my whole life. I've always had pressure on my shoulders. This is just another page in my book."
And there will likely be many more pages to follow.
As happy as he is to be in Lexington, Cousins knows his stay may not last long. Most NBA mock drafts predict that Cousins will be a first-round pick in the 2010 NBA draft should he choose to leave school after his freshman season.
Cousins, though, said he has a lot of maturing to do before he thinks about the next level.
Cousins wants to improve his conditioning and become a better defensive player in the paint. Even though he has a nice touch on his jump shot – it's not uncommon for Cousins to connect from 3-point range – he knows he must focus on expanding his post game and his leaping ability. One knock on Cousins is that he often plays "below the rim."
That's why Cousins is so glad he signed with Kentucky, where, along with playing in front of a sold out Rupp Arena, he can enhance his game under the tutelage of Calipari, a former NBA coach who, during stops at Massachusetts and Memphis, tutored future NBA players such as Derrick Rose, Marcus Camby, Tyreke Evans, Dajuan Wagner, Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
"He's just like me – cut and dried," Cousins said. "Most coaches who recruited me said, 'You're going to be a great player. I'm going to get you the ball every possession and you're going to average 40. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.'
"Coach Cal came in and said, 'You work, you'll play. It's not about you. It's about the team.'"
"At the end of the season," he said, "if you have the ability to be one-and-done, he's going to put your name out there. He's going to help you get there.
"Other coaches try to hold you back for three or four years just to keep their [reputation] up there and keep their program rolling. It's not like that with Cal. He lets you display every ability you have."
Cousins is looking forward to doing just that.
"If I am blessed with the opportunity to be one-and-done, I'm going to take it," he said. "But I'm not even thinking about that right now. I've got one thing on my mind and that's winning a national championship."