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Fit and 'clutter'-free, Poythress emerging ahead of UT matchup

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Alex Poythress has scored a season-high 12 points in two of his last three games entering Saturday's matchup with Tennessee. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress has scored a season-high 12 points in two of his last three games entering Saturday's matchup with Tennessee. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
At first look, the play was impressive and its significance clear.

As time ticked down on the five minutes of overtime at Arkansas, Alex Poythress hustled to track down a missed James Young 3-pointer. He grabbed the offensive rebound, leading to a game-tying 3 by Young that of course was rendered a footnote by Michael Qualls' put-back dunk with 0.2 seconds left.

But as good as the play was in real-time, only a slow-motion replay does it justice.

Poythress flies in from the left wing. In one motion, he rises to a seemingly impossible height, snares the rebound over a crowd, lands on one foot, dribbles as he falls to the ground and tosses underhand to Andrew Harrison.

"I honestly don't know (how he got to that rebound)," Poythress said. "I just (saw) the ball in the air, I just tried to go get it."

Immediately afterward, John Calipari praised Poythress's "effort play." Two days later -- with No. 12/13 UK (12-4, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) in the midst of preparations for a matchup with Tennessee (11-5, 2-1 SEC) at noon ET on Saturday -- he was even more glowing.

"I don't know of another player in the country that could make that play," Calipari said.

Three months ago, Coach Cal says not even Poythress would have been able to pull it off.

"He would have never gone after the ball," Calipari said. "He would have never attempted."

According to Calipari, it starts with conditioning for Poythress. A season ago, he never would have even seen there was a play to be made in that same situation because he would have been too fatigued.

"But now, he can be alert because he's in great shape," Calipari said. "He can be alert because he's busted through comfort levels. He's doing more than he's ever thought he could do. It just took him more time. I mean, these kids are on different timetables. They all are."

Poythress showed flashes of his sophomore-year improvement early this season, but seemingly regressed in back-to-back scoreless outings against Baylor and Boise State in early December.

Since then, he has looked like a different player.

In his last six games, Poythress is averaging 8.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, including 12 points and six rebounds against Arkansas. An outsider might point out he averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds as a freshman as evidence Poythress has regressed, but anyone who has watched knows better.

"I just look at it as I'm going harder in practice," Poythress said. "I'm just doing things I'm capable of doing."

That extends to defense, where Poythress has emerged as the versatile weapon his 6-foot-8, 239-pound frame suggests he can be. In just 16 games, Poythress has matched his freshman block total of 14, six of which have come in UK's last three games.

"I'm just taking defense more personal this year, just trying to stop people, trying to guard people, help my teammates on the weak-side rebounds, weak-side blocks, trying to be in position more," Poythress said.

Once again, Calipari cites Poythress's conditioning as a major factor in that, but also looks to something more intangible.

Poythress came to UK with a McDonald's All-American pedigree and even garnered some early-season buzz as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Calipari, however, said the talented forward had trouble dealing with the "clutter" and outside voices accompanying that.

"At some point, you've got to be a man and man up, and it isn't about another player on the team," Calipari said. "It's not about the coach. It's about me. And I'm going to change this. And you get rid of the clutter."

There's no clearer piece of evidence that Poythress has done that than the fact that he has embraced a role as UK's sixth man.

"It really just matters who's playing at the end of the game," Poythress said. "It doesn't matter who starts the game; it's who finishes."

Poythress has been finishing more than his share of games lately, and he will look to do the same against a physical Volunteer front line on Saturday.

Last year, Tennessee battered Kentucky in the Wildcats' first game after Nerlens Noel's season-ending injury, 88-58. Poythress was quiet in that game, tallying just four points and five rebounds in 20 minutes of the worst loss of the Calipari era at UK.

The Cats, especially Poythress and fellow returners Willie Cauley-Stein and Jarrod Polson, are eager to wipe away those bad memories from last year in Knoxville, Tenn., and earlier this week against Arkansas.

"We owe them one," Poythress said. "They came and embarrassed us a little bit. It's a new game. Trying to rebound from that loss Tuesday, trying to get a W."

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