LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Erik Daniels looked like a point guard early in Kentucky's win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, zipping passes to open teammates and recording four assists before the basketball game was eight minutes old.
That wouldn't be especially noteworthy, except that the 6-8 Daniels is the Wildcats' starting center.
"We tease him about that, too," said Daniels' frontline mate, junior forward Chuck Hayes. "He's the only person who ever got recruited that went from a 1 or 2 (guard positions) to a 5-man (center). I don't know how he does it, I really don't, but the guy, he's got a good, positive thought on it."
Daniels can make plays like a point guard because he used to be one. That's the position he played during his senior season at Princeton High School in Cincinnati. Kentucky recruited him with hopes he could fill a spot at either shooting guard or small forward.
He started at small forward last season as the Wildcats finished 32-4 and reached the Elite Eight. Kentucky lost two centers off that team, and although the Wildcats signed a pair of 7-foot freshmen, Daniels knew it would probably be his job as a senior to play in the post.
His focus this season, he said, has been to improve his strength - he's bulked up to 214 pounds - and improve his rebounding. The latter is of particular interest to his mother, Carmen.
"That's the only thing my mom tells me to do," said Daniels, who hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer Tuesday in Kentucky's 67-66 win at No. 20 Mississippi State. "She always screams, 'Rebound! Rebound!' the whole game, so I've got to do that for her."
Apparently, he's been listening. Daniels is averaging 7.0 boards per game, along with 15.0 points for the fifth-ranked Wildcats (11-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference). Entering the season, he had career averages of 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
"Erik has always had the capability," Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins said. "I think this year, he's getting more touches. We're going to him in the post. He's one of our first options down low. Plays are run for him and he's capitalizing on them."
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said Daniels has made a conscious effort this season to improve his offensive rebounding.
"I think he's figured out that's the way he's going to score," Smith said. "I think the matchups for him (this season) have been fairly even. We haven't played anyone overwhelmingly taller than he is."
Not that it would bother Daniels.
"I really don't think about it any more," he said. "I just go out there and play. You're just trying to get victories out there."
Daniels said his past as a point guard has helped him become a more versatile post player.
"Every now and then, I have a matchup where I can go outside and take my man off the dribble. I've said that's made my game a lot better," Daniels said. "I'm able to do all the things I did on the perimeter, but I'm able to do them in the post. I can see guys cutting to the basket. It just makes the offense run a lot better."
Still, when Daniels makes a mistake - or doesn't live up to his own expectations - he can be critical of himself. Teammates and coaches say it's not unusual to hear Daniels muttering unprintable things to himself during practices or games.
"His biggest thing has been negative self-esteem," Smith said. "I think he has a belief in himself and his ability, but he's his own worst critic. That's why he's struggling from the free-throw line right now (shooting 54.5 percent), because he has a tendency to not believe that the ball is going to go in."
Daniels said that assessment is correct, and that talking to himself on the court has been a lifelong habit. But there may be a benefit to it.
"I think (talking to himself) actually makes him play better," Hawkins said. "When he gets down on himself, he comes out and plays better. So when he does that, I leave him alone and let Erik do his thing."
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