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Notebook: Towns embracing 'inside-out' mentality

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Karl-Anthony Towns is second on the team in points and rebounds through three games of UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Karl-Anthony Towns is second on the team in points and rebounds through three games of UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - Karl-Anthony Towns' credentials entering the Big Blue Bahamas trip were pretty good.

He was arguably the gem of the 2014 recruiting class, a top-10 prospect and the newly minted Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year. Most NBA analysts have him listed as a top-five pick for the 2015 draft.

That's not to say anyone expected Towns to play like he has thus far in the Bahamas.

The 6-foot-11, 250-pound forward has looked dominant at times against older, professional competition. Highlighted by an 19-point, 10-rebound performance in game two of the exhibition tour against Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, a first-division professional team from France, Towns is averaging 13.0 points and 7.7 rebounds in three games in the Bahamas.

Assistant coach John Robic admitted surprise in how far along Towns is at this stage in his career.

"I really didn't know how gifted of a scorer he is," Robic said. "He has to get stronger, but his skill level is really, really high for a young, young man. And he really hasn't shot the ball well, and that's one thing that he can do. But he can score in a variety of ways and he's just going to be a big piece for us."

Coming to Kentucky, Towns was billed as a skilled big man who could shoot, but he hadn't necessarily earned a reputation as a back-to-the-basket, put-a-shoulder-into-the-defender post player.

Analysts can now officially tear up those scouting reports.

Against physical professionals, Towns has mixed it up with the biggest players UK's two opponents have had to offer, even getting into a dust-up with Matt Lopez in Tuesday's game against the Puerto Rico national team reserves.

That was after, in a team film session after the first game, John Calipari criticized Towns for looking for his outside too much. In that first game, though Towns only took two 3-point shots, missing both, he roamed the perimeter too much. Calipari got on him for taking too many treys during warm-ups instead of going inside and working on his strongest part of game.

"He has a tendency to want to be a perimeter big, but in order for him to be the best player in the country, ... in order for him to be a professional, in order for him to dominate college basketball, it has to start from the inside-out," assistant coach Kenny Payne said.

Towns got the message and has worked almost exclusively inside the last two games. He's 15 for 21 from 2-point range so far, including three dunks on Tuesday.

"What he brings to this team is super because we need big, long, energetic, skilled guys that can dictate what we're trying to do," Payne said.

Having said all that, Towns said not to sleep on his outside shooting.

"I think that my size sometimes deceives people," Towns said. "I think people don't give me as much credit for the perimeter, but that's just our little advantage that we have."

Poythress not letting up


As his head coach sat alongside ESPNU's Kevin Connors and Jay Bilas during a segment of UK's second-half rout of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Alex Poythress continued what he had been doing all week and threw down a dunk.

"Who is that kid?" Calipari exclaimed on air.

It's a good question, Coach. It certainly isn't the same inconsistent player fans have watched play during his first two seasons at Kentucky.

Poythress has always shown signs of brilliance during his two seasons at Kentucky. He's been a highlight machine at times, but the flashes always seemed to burn out just as quickly as they flared up.

Three games definitely isn't big enough of a sample size to draw conclusions about Poythress' consistency issues, but there is something to be said about being the most consistent and most dominant player on a team that has shown few weaknesses from top to bottom so far.

Poythress, who has drawn rave reviews from different members of the coaching staff after each game, drew another shower of compliments from his head coach while he was on ESPNU on Tuesday.

"The best thing he's doing right now, obviously offensive rebounding," said Calipari, who added that he still wants to try Poythress more at the three position. "But defensively he's never played this way. He's never been able to that active, stay in front of his man, block shots, doing the things he's doing right now."

Poythress is leading the team in points (13.7) and rebounds (8.0) in the Bahamas, but his motor, which Robic compared to a rebuilt engine, has been the most impressive.

"He just does things athletically that you cannot teach and you don't see very often, and he's trying to do them more, really without us saying nothing about them," Robic said. "He's playing above the rim by himself a lot of times, and we've been telling him that for three years."

No cracks yet

If there's a reason above all others for all the Big Blue Nation pandemonium over this team's play in the Bahamas, it's that it's shown relatively few signs of weaknesses. There aren't a lot of cracks.

But, as Bilas said during a talk with the team Wednesday night, fissures will eventually appear. As Bilas told the Cats, cracks will show with every basketball team, and those cracks will be magnified more so at Kentucky than at any other school because of the spotlight on the program.

It will be up to the players to internally filter that noise, or clutter, as Calipari calls it, out.

"What can you stop you from accomplishing what your goals are?" Bilas asked the team. "It's a lack of togetherness. I think you really have to be tough-minded and mentally tough to stay together throughout the course of a difficult season. You have, truthfully, more obstacles that most teams have because of the spotlight that's on you and every camera is on you. Throughout the course of the year, with the coverage now, you're going to be talked about as much, if not more than any team in the country and arguably in team in the last 20 years.

"As your season goes along, there are going to be people like me, in my job ... we're going to talk about how good it can be. Then we're going to talk about how good you are. Then, people are going to get bored with that and we're going to start talking about, how can you beat Kentucky? Then they're going to start talking about, what are their weaknesses? And they're going to start hammering. And instead of what you're really good at it, we will start hammering little things."

Bilas said that consistent hammering will inevitably result in cracks that may exist and even some that may not.

"We're going to be armchair quarterbacks and start talking about your team when the truth is we don't know," Bilas told the players. "We think, and that's fine; we all have opinions. But we don't know. The people who know are in here. Keeping that at the forefront of your mind is a big deal."

Coach Cal, who said on air with ESPNU that he's been pleasantly surprised with the ball movement and admitted that this team could be as deep as he's ever had, echoed Bilas' warning and gave the UK fan base similar advice.

"This could be special," Calipari said on the UK/IMG radio broadcast. "But you know what? They've got to be mentally tough enough to not be sabotaged. And the sabotaging will not come from within; it's going to come from outside. And for our fans, don't buy into it. Don't you buy into it. Don't you buy. Don't talk about it. Understand what they're trying to do. It ain't going to crack me because you people know I'm like - you ain't moving me at all. But don't let it move anybody else."
Playing Ulis and Andrew Harrison together

Part of that sabotaging Calipari has alluded to is a storyline the UK coach feels like is already being manufactured in the media: How do two point guards like Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, both of whom have been highly productive in the Bahamas, play together and co-exist?

Calipari answered that question with another question: Why can't they play together?

"Andrew is so much better than he was a year ago," Calipari said on the radio. "Now, you'll have some people trying to break down the team saying, 'Well, Tyler Ulis, he should ...' That's just because you have an agenda. Andrew Harrison has been playing his butt off. Tyler, think about it, we're always going to have a point guard in like that? And, what if I want to play them together some? It's late in the game and we need another handler and another free throw. Now they're both in there together."

Both point guards have put up similar stats thus far - Harrison is averaging 6.0 points and 5.0 assists in the Bahamas; Ulis 5.0 points and 4.0 assists - but they have different styles.

Harrison is a big guard at 6-6 who can, as Calipari described, "bully" opponents, while Ulis is a jitterbug with a penchant for putting his teammates in the right spot to score the ball.

"He's going to give it to you in a place you can score," Coach Cal said. "You know what your team does? Everybody runs like crazy because you think you're going to get the ball. Andrew is doing the same now."

Next up: the Dominicans

After winning three games in three days by an average of 28.0 points, the Cats are expected to face their stiffest test yet when they play the Dominican Republic national team on Friday at 1 p.m. on the SEC Network.

The Dominicans lost to Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket in an exhibition on Wednesday, but Calipari says the Cats will have their hands full.

"That team is a little different," Calipari said on the radio. "They're really good. It's going to be interesting."

The Dominican Republic matchup features a number of storylines for Kentucky. For one, Calipari coached the team for two seasons. Two, former assistant Orlando Antigua is now the head coach. And then there will be familiar faces on both sides of the ball. Former Wildcat Eloy Vargas plays for the Dominicans, as do former Cardinals Francisco Garcia and Edgar Sosa. Towns is also usually a Dominican team member.

With a step up in competition, Calipari is expected to return to the sideline Friday and resume his head-coaching duties.

"I'm going to take the next one on the chin for the staff."

15 Days to 2014 UK Volleyball: Jackie Napper

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NAPPER_TWITTER-FACEBOOK.jpgLeading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. Next up is senior Jackie Napper: 

"It's a home away from home, my second family. I know my teammates, coaches and staff will always have my back. We all have different personalities, but together we make up a team that has one goal in mind, to win a championship. We like to have fun and get our laughs in, but most importantly we love to compete and WIN!"

A senior, Napper started at libero in all 31 matches for the Wildcats in 2013. The Louisville, Ky., native earned All-SEC Academic team honors and led the team with 443 digs for a 3.99 digs per set rate to go along with 111 assists, the second highest total on the team during her junior season. Napper tallied a career-best 24 digs in UK's upset win over No. 4 Minnesota and had a career-high nine assists vs. VCU, both last season.

Preseason Team Update: August 14, 2014
From a morning yoga session to picture day and an appearance on the SEC Network's inaugural show, Thursday was a busy day for the Wildcats.

Picture day is another sign that the season is just around the corner. UK's staff photographer, Brittney Howard took a team photo in addition to headshots and select other group photos. Kentucky Wildcats TV was there to document all the action:


Also Thursday, with the SEC Network's launch just hours away, it was announced that 27 of UK's 31 matches will appear on the SEC Network +, the digital platform of the SEC Network. All of Kentucky's home matches and every home and road SEC match will air nationwide on SECNetwork.com and WatchESPN, which is available to all SEC Network subscribers. More information and a full schedule, which includes eight matches already announced to be broadcast on the SEC Network and ESPNU, can be found here.

TV Release 636.jpg

Finally, after practice and a team dinner, the Wildcats participated in the launch of the SEC Network. In the three-hour kickoff show, the team was involved in a live look-in as they watched the show from the team room.


For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and practice reports, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVB and on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.


GRAY_TWITTER-FACEBOOK.jpgLeading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. Next up is assistant coach Lindsey Gray-Walton: 

"Kentucky volleyball is an opportunity of a lifetime. To be a part of the Big Blue Nation is something special that not everyone gets to be a part of. It's an exciting time to see our dreams and goals come true."

Lindsey Gray-Walton begins her fifth season as an assistant coach with the Wildcats after being hired in January of 2010. A native of Olathe, Kan., Gray-Walton serves as the Wildcats' recruiting coordinator. Each of her four signing classes have ranked among the top-25 in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com The 2012 squad was tabbed as the 15th best in the nation. Gray-Walton is a 2008 graduate of Georgia Tech, where she was a member of three 20-plus win teams and earned All-SEC Second Team honors in 2006.

Preseason Team Update: August 13, 2014

For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and practice reports, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVB and on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.



Through more than a week of fall camp, Mark Stoops has talked consistently about how his team has improved in facets.

He's praised the offense for playing at a pace closer to what Neal Brown's offense calls for and the defense for executing more cleanly.

On Wednesday, with UK's first full scrimmage, it was time to put it all to the test at Commonwealth Stadium.

"We really need to just put the ball down and move it," Stoops said. "Obviously there's a fine line there with all the tackling that goes on, but this was a full, live scrimmage over there today. I think we stayed relatively healthy and we got a lot of good work in, and we really needed to do that."

The offense stepped up and had one of its best days Stoops can recall since the new coaching staff's arrival.

"It was nice for them to put it together," Stoops said. "I thought they really did some good things. And that's why we need to do that -- just put it down and go -- so they can put all their play-actions together and their runs and their passes and all those good things. So it was good to see."

Asked which players performed well, Stoops didn't name names before watching tape. That, however, is a positive. It means UK is operating as a team.

"I thought they did a nice job of -- you've heard me say it time and time again -- making the routine plays," Stoops said. "So when we have our play passes or the situations where we have a slant that's open, we catch it and make a first down rather than be second and 10. That's a huge difference."

UK's quarterbacks once again shared time with the first team as they compete for the starting job, a race that is progressing but still very much up in the air. Stoops expects a decision to come "in the next week," but reiterated that he won't name a starter just to name one.

"One of the reasons why we're trying to be very critical of ourselves in making this decision is because it's so important, and when we give that person the reins, we want them to go," Stoops said. "You've heard me say that for a year now. Every time a year ago when we thought we were giving somebody the reins to the quarterback situation, something happened. Maybe they got hurt or maybe they didn't play very good. So we want to make sure we're very precise in our decision-making, and once we give them the keys to the car, we want them to drive it."

As for the defense, the group didn't have its best day of fall camp, but UK still had reason to be encouraged on that side of the ball. Competition is good for everyone.

"In practice, it's not good if you win because they screw up," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "You didn't do anything, right? So a good practice is one where they execute, you execute and then a player makes a play."

Besides, Wednesday will be far from the last time their offense gives a defense fits if Stoops and Brown have their way.

"We're much further along than we were all year last year, but that's the good thing, that's what I told the offense, that's what they can do when they go put that kind of pressure on you," Stoops said. "That's what helps them put some pressure on defenses. You all watch college football and you see some great defenses struggle with tempo because it neutralizes you a little bit because of what you can call and what you can execute."



Neal Brown knows incoming freshmen face a challenge they don't fully understand in adjusting to college football.

That's why he has a saying he repeats often as they make the transition from high school.

"This is what I always tell them, to kind of make it real for you, is I tell them to pick out the best player they played against in their high school career," Brown said. "The very best player. Think about it. Now, that player -- you're going against somebody as good or better every single day in practice. It's just a totally different world for them."

It's a different world that those talented newcomers are beginning to understand.

With UK opening practice to fans and media for the third time in four days, the Wildcat offense struggled through a seven-on-seven period before impressing in red-zone and team drills. Patrick Towles, with it being his day in UK's quarterback rotation, was leading the way most often, but the up-and-down performance had a lot to do with a receiving corps relying heavily on a number of freshmen.

"We're young at wideout," Brown said. "You can see it. There's some times where we make some really good plays. Like Thaddeus Snodgrass and Blake Bone made some really good plays. And there's some times when we're struggling getting off man, and a lot of that has to do with just pad level and understanding it's a little bit different than high school."

With Bone, Snodgrass and Dorian Baker getting plenty of first-team reps with Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Alexander Montgomery out or limited as they recover from injury, Brown has taken advantage of size the freshmen add in his play-calling. That was clear on the fade pass Towles threw to the 6-foot-5 Bone.

"That's something we didn't have at any point last year," Brown said. "That's something we made a living on at (Texas) Tech. We were long on the outside."

UK's freshmen have also provided a new dimension at running back with the speedy Stanley "Boom" Williams and Mikel Horton, a 230 pounder. The Wildcats are deep at the position, with Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp and Josh Clemons looking strong during camp, but this staff won't be shy about playing youngsters if they deserve.

"We're going to play the best ones," Brown said. "We're going to play the best kids. Stanley is really starting to come on. He's making some -- he made a couple really good runs today. What I told him, what I tried to explain to him, he broke one to the outside, that was against the twos. If it was against the ones, he would have got ran down. So just trying to explain to him, you're not going to outrun everybody. It's better to get a two-yard gain than a five-yard loss. That's something that you just need some experience.

"Mikel Horton did a really good job in our short yardage segment there. He gives us that added dimension."

Smiles abound in dunkfest win over Puerto Rico

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Marcus Lee had 14 points and seven rebounds in UK's win over Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 14 points and seven rebounds in UK's win over Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - At some point during this Bahamas trip, the Kentucky Wildcats have to come back down to earth, right?

That was the expectation Tuesday as the Cats headed into their third game in three days in the sweltering Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas. Against a collection of Puerto Rico national team reserves thirsty for a little redemption after getting embarrassed by 25 points on Sunday, some letdown was anticipated from UK.

That script looked like it might come to fruition early in Tuesday's game when Kentucky stumbled to a lethargic start, but the deep and athletic Cats - who are doing nothing to temper the mushrooming preseason hype - quickly tore it up.

They just kept skyrocketing to the rim.

It started when Alex Poythress came alive. Then Derek Willis and Marcus Lee started dunking everything. And before anyone could catch their breath, Karl-Anthony Towns was dominating 30-year-old professionals again.

By the time Aaron Harrison drained two 3-pointers from the left wing - one that had a familiar 2014 NCAA Tournament look to it - the Kentucky highlight show was well into production, as was the third consecutive blowout.

"We're having a blast out there," Lee said. "If you see every player while they're out there, sitting on the bench, you'll see them smiling and laughing the whole time. We're just loving our time out here."

How could they not? They've destroyed two teams of professionals over the course of three games in three days by an average margin of 28 points. The latest was Tuesday's 93-57 romp over Puerto Rico, an outcome that was never in doubt after the Cats went on a 16-2 first-half run to take firm control of the game.

"We knew we had a talented bunch and we knew that we had a lot of returning players from last year," said assistant coach John Robic, who filled in as head coach as John Calipari watched and evaluated from the stands for a second straight day. "I think the freshmen have fit in very, very well, especially for the first couple of games ... in a Kentucky uniform. I think our size shows. That's a really big team and that's without Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Trey (Lyles). So I think we have different weapons. And the returning guys have gotten better. And that's big."

Now granted the two teams UK has played in its first three days in the Bahamas haven't been together all that long this summer and were a bit overwhelmed by a UK team that is in better shape and has had more time to jell in recent weeks. But to beat up on two teams made up of professionals - teams Coach Cal thought UK could lose to - on national TV has been a pretty booming statement that has likely shaken the rest of college basketball.

The real test will come Friday, after two off days, when the Cats play the Dominican Republic national team, which features a talent-loaded roster made up of Francisco Garcia, Edgar Sosa and Jack Michael Martinez.

"The nice thing is I think we're getting a little bit better every game," Robic said. "Our plan, or Cal's plan of everybody playing equal minutes has stayed true to form, so everybody has played 60 minutes, and it's only off by about 20 seconds here or there. So that's been really good. They've only played a game and a half in three days, so now we have a couple of days off before we do the same thing all over again."

Until then, the Cats will get two days off to enjoy their stay at the Atlantis and reflect on an afternoon of slams that would have made the dunk-happy 2012 national championship Wildcats -- one of whom (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) was in the stands Tuesday - proud.

En route to shooting 62 percent from the field, UK players flushed home 15 of their 38 field goals on Tuesday, several of the jaw-dropping variety. Among the best dunks: a double-clutch slam by Poythress, a one-handed windmill by the 6-11 Towns and any of Lee's gravity-defying alley-oops.

All told, Lee had six dunks, and Poythress, Willis and Towns jammed three apiece.

"It was just one of those things," said Willis, who threw down an alley-oop dunk on pass from Tyler Ulis during the game-defining 16-2 run in the first half and then another one from Dominique Hawkins moments later during a 13-0 run. "Coach Slice (Barry Rohrssen), he's been talking to us about going to the basket, hitting the boards, because they leave us out there, so that's just a thing. When you go to the boards, we're long and big enough to just dunk the ball."

Robic said the dunks tend to be contagious, as was the case Tuesday. They may only count as two points, but the energy a player creates when he rattles the rim spreads to this teammates.

"You see their reaction," Robic said. "It's an exciting play. It's a game-changing play when you get a run of them consecutively by different players, yeah. The neatest thing for us as coaches is to see the players' reaction on the bench when big plays like that are made."

If there was any hope of a Puerto Rico charge in the second half, Lee quickly crushed it when he picked off a pass and dribbled the length of the floor for his easiest flush of the night. Seconds later Ulis found him hanging above the rim again, paving the way for another dominant UK second half.

"It's just confidence," with Lee, Robic said, "and he's been working at it. He's strong. He's probably put on 10 to 15 pounds, 10 to 12 pounds. I think it was just a direct carryover of the NCAA Tournament."

Lee, who celebrated in the postgame press conference over the fact he's finally reached 220 pounds, finished Tuesday's rout with 14 points and seven rebounds after a quiet game Monday.

"I feel bigger," Lee said. "I feel more confident throwing my weight around and guarding bigger player."

Poythress continued to throw his weight around in Tuesday's romp, making 7-of-9 shots from the floor for 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The junior forward, who has drawn rave reviews from three different members of the coaching staff after each game, is averaging 13.7 points and 8.0 rebounds during the Big Blue Bahamas tour. Robic, the latest coach to praise Poythress, likened his improved motor to a "rebuilt engine."

"His confidence has to be through the roof," Robic said of Poythress, who has grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in three games. "He just does things athletically that you cannot teach and you don't see very often. And he's trying to do them more, really without us saying nothing about them. He's playing above the rim by himself a lot of times, and we've been telling him that for three years. It's great to see him smile."

Poythress is far from the only Wildcat grinning from ear to ear on this trip.

The toughest test yet - a date with the Dominicans on Friday that could be that coming-back-to-earth moment that erases those smiles - is still yet to come, but if the purpose of this trip was to learn about this team and see if this amount of depth could work, the Big Blue Bahamas tour has to be considered a raging success so far.

"I honestly didn't know what to expect," Willis admitted. "I didn't know if it was going to be a thing where there's just too many good players and it just falls apart, but we're all really good guys and no one's really selfish. I don't get that vibe from anyone."

Said Robic: "It's a great group of kids that really like each other and were cheering each other on, and that's part of this trip."

Assistant coach John Robic


Marcus Lee and Derek Willis


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