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'Defining his game,' Poythress excels in reserve role

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Alex Poythress posted his second-career double-double in UK's season-opening 89-57 win over UNC Asheville. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress posted his second-career double-double in UK's season-opening 89-57 win over UNC Asheville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On the eve of a season opener against UNC Asheville, John Calipari was asked whether James Young would play after sustaining a minor ankle sprain in Kentucky's final exhibition.

Calipari told the curious reporter he didn't know yet (Young would indeed play) and did what he often does, going off on a seemingly unrelated tangent. The topic, in this case, was Alex Poythress.

"Alex has been really good," Calipari said. "He's narrowed his game and he's trying to play harder and he's not caving in and stopping."

Fans got a taste of what Calipari was talking about as Poythress scored 10 points in that final exhibition to bounce back from a disappointing performance against Transylvania. But even so, "narrowing his game" seemed like one of those signature Coach Cal phrases whose meaning wouldn't become clear until later.

In this case, it took less than 24 hours for Poythress to put on display exactly what his coach was talking about.

Honing on his strengths, avoiding his weaknesses and bringing the kind of consistent energy that often escaped him as a freshman, Poythress tallied his second-career double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.

"I thought he was terrific," Calipari said of Poythress.

After the 89-57 win, Calipari tweaked his original word choice about Poythress's second-year evolution slightly to "defining his game" and gave a bit more insight into what that means.

"I'm not a playmaker, that's not how I'm going to play, and I'm going to go after every ball and dunk every ball, and he's playing to his strengths, trying to be the best version of him," Calipari said.

Playing on a team that lacked depth and the star power of Julius Randle -- who had 23 points and 15 rebounds in his collegiate debut -- Poythress felt pressure to produce in all facets. When the Wildcats weren't playing well, it was easy to fall in the trap of trying to force plays.

Now surrounded by the likes of Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison and an improved Willie Cauley-Stein, Poythress feels no need to do anything outside his wheelhouse.

"It's easy because we're really deep this year," Poythress said. "We've got a lot of guys this year, so it's easy to find your role within the game."

Though it may be easier for the Wildcats to identify their roles, getting on the floor to actually fulfill them is much more of a challenge. Last season, Calipari couldn't afford not to have Poythress on the floor. Now, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and Jon Hood are waiting in the wings if he's not playing the way his coach demands.

"You've just gotta be ready whenever you get your opportunity," Poythress said. "You never know when it's gonna be. It might be quick, it might late. You've just gotta come out and be ready, give off great energy and compete out there."

For just the third time in his career, Poythress came off the bench on Friday night. Within two minutes, it was clear he had come ready to play. Poythress corralled a miss by Johnson, missed a shot of his own inside, rebounded again and finally scored on a layup.

Marcus Lee -- who thrived in a reserve role himself by scoring 17 points in 15 minutes -- said that kind of energy is contagious.

"It's kind of like catching fire, where everybody is just getting pumped and everybody is always ready," Lee said. "So when Alex is going in and getting all of those rebounds, he's got the whole bench excited. We knew it was going to be a great game just by him getting all of those rebounds all of a sudden which I absolutely loved."

Poythress continued his assault on the glass, grabbing six offensive rebounds and scoring eight of his 10 points directly off of them in just 21 minutes.

"I'm just trying to play to my game really," Poythress said. "That's attacking the rim, getting rebounds, everything like that."

Poythress doesn't mind his new reserve role and actually says he benefits from starting on the bench. A 4.0 student, Poythress did what he's used to doing for the 2:19 he waited to check in.

Study.

"You know how the game's being played, how the refs are calling fouls," Poythress said. "You can analyze the game better and when you get in you'll know what to do."

Poythress gave UK a significant boost off the bench against UNC Asheville, but his presence could prove even more crucial as the season wears on.

The new emphasis on eliminating physical play was easily observed on Friday, as officials whistled the two teams for a combined 52 fouls. The Cats coped with some minor foul issues in the game, but there will come a time when multiple starters are shackled to the bench due to fouls.

Calipari didn't build his roster thinking about the way games would be officiated this season, but having the depth to be able to bring a projected first-round pick like Poythress off the bench is a major asset.

"I'm happy that we're deep because it is going to play a part, no question about it," Calipari said.

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