Aug. 10, 2014
By Eric Lindsey, CoachCal.com
NASSAU, Bahamas — As promised, John Calipari served as a mad scientist in Kentucky’s exhibition opener in the Bahamas, rolling out a two-platoon system to mix and match lineups and experiment with a talent-loaded roster.
The different looks certainly whetted the appetite of Big Blue Nation, and some of UK’s newest pieces definitely wowed. But when it came down to it Sunday, it was two Wildcat veterans who put on the best shows in Kentucky’s 74-49 victory over the Puerto Rico national team reserves, the first of six games in the Bahamas over the next eight days.
Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison, who provided the heroics during last season’s dramatic national championship game run, took on a steadier, more balanced role Sunday with a team-high 15 points, while junior forward Alex Poythress put on a stunning display of athleticism and toughness.
“One of the things he wants to do,” Calipari said of Harrison,” … was his comments to me, ‘I don’t ever want to evaporate on the court. I want to have a presence on the court whether I’m scoring or not.’ Which defensively means, you saw him pressuring the ball today, going up and playing. You saw him in pick and rolls. You saw him rebounding the ball. You saw him fighting in there. That’s when you have a presence.”
Poythress had the biggest presence in Sunday’s game though.
Officially, he finished with 10 points, six rebounds and a block, but a few reporters/UK staff members had him for several more rebounds, a couple of them of the sky-high variety. Unofficially, it looked like a big step forward for Poythress heading into an important junior season.
“He was terrific,” Calipari said after the game. “That’s as good as he’s played. And again, you have to understand those are older professional players (he went against).”
Poythress not only showed those professionals the power of youth with his superior athleticism, he quieted some doubters who have questioned his position and wondered where he fits on this deep and talented team. He did so with a couple of strong offensive rebounds in the first half, an impressive block against a 6-foot-10, at least 250-pound Puerto Rican center, and a nearly jaw-dropping alley-oop dunk that Harrison threw about a foot too high.
“He just does things the normal players can’t do,” Coach Cal said. “To be honest, the stuff he does, I can’t teach. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
That’s high praise from a coach who has sent 24 players to the NBA Draft over the last seven years. What separates Poythress from some of his peers is not only his athleticism, Calipari said, it’s his toughness.
“Not many people are athletic like I am,” Poythress said. “I just try to use my God-given abilities.”
Where those God-given abilities are best utilized has been a topic of debate for the past season or so, especially in this preseason.
Should Poythress stay at power forward where he’s clearly more athletic than most fours but a bit undersized? Or should he move to the three where he can dominate opponents with his strength but needs to develop better ball handling and a more consistent shot?
“Both of them feel natural to me,” Poythress said. “I can play any position. It just was the lineups we had today, I had to play the four. Coach said he’s going to switch up the lineups, so I’ll probably get to play the three some more games later.”
Calipari cautioned anyone from assuming that Poythress’ time at the four Sunday meant that’s what he is going forward. He said he used Poythress at power forward to evenly split up his two rotations.
“Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist) was exactly the same thing (as Poythress),” Calipari said. “Consistent shooting, we’ve got to work on that. But I tell you, he was aggressive, came up with balls out of nowhere. … It’s all this process that he’s going through. But where he is physically right now, where he is mentally right now, the toughness he’s shown, you’re starting to see it now in games.”
Calipari – at least for the first game – kept his word on what he’s calling a two-platoon system. He started the Harrison twins with Devin Booker, Poythress and Dakari Johnson, but the first five split time with the second rotation of Tyler Ulis, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Marcus Lee and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Other than a first-half substitution for Towns when he picked up three quick fouls and some last-minute action for EJ Floreal and Tod Lanter, the two rotations stayed intact throughout the afternoon and played nearly the exact same minutes.
Outside a shaky start for the second five and a slight lull for the starters in the second half, both groups impressed.
“Everybody touched the ball and had opportunities to do things,” Coach Cal said. “Loved our ball pressure. Loved the fact that we’re passing the ball to each other and making extra passes. Aggressive. Our ball pressure was great and we were pushing the ball and attacking. The things that we worked on we did. Transition defense, we’re still not – but, you know, it’s Aug. (10) for God’s sakes.”
The second five went on a 10-0 run midway through the first half after a Booker 3 and steal, a layup from Harrison, three straight points from Lee, and a layup by Hawkins. Puerto Rico briefly regained the lead, but the starters closed the half strong with a 10-2 run, which featured a slick crossover dribble and pass from Andrew Harrison (four points, four rebounds and four assists) to Poythress for a dunk.
The players liked the two-platoon system.
“It was real good because you can go as hard as you can, burn out, play hard, get steals, press, and then you got another five coming in for you in a couple minutes, so you know you can go all out,” Poythress said.
Whether or not playing two units is even realistic when injured big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles join the rotation remains to be seen.
“We can do it,” Aaron Harrison said. “Not many teams, college or pro, can say you have 10 guys that can actually be on the floor and compete. So we’re just a special team. I mean, if Coach decides to do it, I think it wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
The second half opened the same way the first ended as the Cats took control of the game. The coaching staff drew up an alley-oop dunk from Towns to Willis to open the half, and then Lee scored back-to-back baskets to take firm control.
By the time 5-9 point guard Ulis settled in and started to wow the crowd with zippy passes and pestering defense, the Cats had blown the game open.
“He really pushed the ball and found his teammates, but he also – it wasn’t so much his command of the offense — he put great pressure on the ball,” Calipari said of Ulis, who finished with a team-high five assists. “And in the second half, the guy, it’s like he’s a gnat; all the sudden you just kind of let him steal one. He had a couple plays like that. So it’s really – it changes the dynamic of our team right now, because we didn’t have that (last year).”
Booker and Lee scored nine points apiece, Towns had 10, and Johnson finished with six points and six rebounds to round out the action for the Cats, who return to Kendal G.L Isaacs National Gymnasium at 1 p.m. ET on Monday to play Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, a professional team from France.
“I didn’t think anybody gave us a bad effort,” Calipari said. “I didn’t think anybody did, and that’s amazing Aug. (10) and 10 practices (in).”
Men’s Basketball – UKAthletics