Aaron Harrison and Alex Poythress combined for 25 points as UK opened its Big Blue Bahamas tour with a win on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
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
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.
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.
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
"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."
those God-given abilities are best utilized has been a topic of debate
for the past season or so, especially in this preseason.
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."
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)."
John Calipari will lead UK in six exhibition games in the Bahamas next week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With school set to go back in session in a matter of weeks, students throughout the country are taking advantage of their final chances to get away for summer vacation.
It's no different for the Kentucky basketball team, as the Wildcats leave Saturday for a trip to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.
Needless to say, players are excited.
"I've never been out of the country before so it should be a different experience," junior Alex Poythress said.
As fun as the week and a half will be, the Cats have serious business to tend to while they're on their Big Blue Bahamas tour.
UK will play two games each against the Dominican Republic national team, the Puerto Rico national team reserves and French first-division club team Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket. The first three games on Aug. 10-12 will air at 1 p.m. ET on ESPNU and the second three on Aug. 15-17 at 1 p.m. on the new SEC Network.
Fans, undoubtedly, are excited to get an early glimpse of the most experienced John Calipari-coached UK team. Calipari, however, has a warning for them, and it has everything to do with the level of competition the Cats will be facing.
"We get down there, we're going six games in eight days against professional players, which means we probably shouldn't win any of the games," Calipari said.
Official rosters for UK's opponents have not yet been released, but the Cats figure to face the likes of Jack Michael Martinez and Francisco Garcia of the Orlando Antigua-led Dominican Republic and Da'Sean Butler and Tasmin Mitchell of Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket. Playing against talented veterans will pose a stiff challenge for a UK team that will be without big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, both of whom will be held out of competition for precautionary reasons as they recover from injury.
As Calipari has mentioned in practice on a number of occasions this week, UK's competition consists of 30-year-olds who are going to play physical and won't care how talented the Cats are.
"It is going to be tough, but we have been preparing for them and practicing for a long time," Poythress said. "Just going to get there and take care of business, play the game right and try to do what we can down there."
Before the 2010-11 season, the Cats traveled to Canada and faced overmatched opponents. As when most college teams take these international trips, it was as much about the 10 practices allowed by the NCAA ahead of the trip as the trip itself.
Four years later, Calipari has adjusted his priorities to fit his personnel.
"I think this team needed something a little different, and that's why we're doing this," Calipari said. "Not sure anybody's done what we're doing before. ... I don't think anybody's done this where they're flying in a bunch of professional teams to play this and come after us."
That's why Coach Cal won't judge success in these games based on the final score.
"I don't want it to be about winning and losing right now," Calipari said. "I want it to be about development. Are we getting better? Are we learning how to play off of one another? When adversity hits, how do we deal with it? We're just trying to learn."
To that end, Calipari is considering allowing his assistants to coach in his place for "some of the games" in the Bahamas. Players, specifically UK's latest crop of highly touted freshmen, have been exposed to Coach Cal's trademark intensity enough in practices ahead of the trip that it makes sense for the head coach to let go of the reins a bit next week.
"Right now, I'm coaching through the whole practice," Calipari said. "I got 10 days with them and I'm trying to get them - I need the freshmen to know what I'm like to a degree. Like, I said, right now everybody's happy go lucky. Well, when we get ready to play some games it'll be a little different. But at least they get the idea of what they're going to be held accountable for."
The experimenting won't end there.
Even with Cauley-Stein and Lyles sidelined, UK can still go 11 deep. With all that talent and skillsets ranging from bruising center Dakari Johnson to high-flying forward Alex Poythress to water bug point guard Tyler Ulis, figuring out how all the pieces best fit together will take time.
The Bahamas could give Calipari a head start. New special assistant to the head coach Tony Barbee has been pitching a zone defense, while Coach Cal is always searching for ways to use more press. He could even turn to a "bomb squad" like Dean Smith used at North Carolina and play a seven-man rotation and another five-man group for occasional five-minute stretches.
In other words, Calipari is taking nothing off the table.
"At the end of the day you want to win, yet early on in the season it's more important that you learn," Calipari said. "What exactly are these guys? This isn't normal, and I come back to, 'This isn't Cal ball. This is how we're going to play every year.' We don't know how we're going to play every year. Why is that? I got different players every year, and different strengths and different weaknesses. If I try to play a certain way and it's detrimental to the players, but it's for me, my way? I mean, we don't know.
Given the circumstances - minimal practice time, high-level opponents, experimental styles of play - short-term failure is inevitable. That's fine with Coach Cal, though, because long-term success is the goal.
"What happens to these guys, whether we win or lose they're hungry after the game," Calipari said. "Let them take an L on national television and see how hungry they are then. I'm trying to teach them."
Aaron and Andrew Harrison. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
What a difference a year can make.
This time last year, the Harrison twins were still in Texas finishing up some academic work. They arrived on campus just before the fall semester began, well after most of their teammates.
They missed out on the offseason strength and conditioning workouts. They didn't get the usual offseason crash course that freshmen need in a John Calipari offense. They were, as Coach Cal said, two and a half months behind because it took him half the season to figure out how they were going to play.
All because the Harrison twins weren't here in the summer.
"By not being here in the summer, they got behind the 8-ball conditioning wise," Calipari said Wednesday. "So it took us half a year to get them in condition so we could really see, 'Alright, what exactly can they do?' "
The twins have been in Lexington this summer for offseason workouts and the pre-Bahamas practices, as have the rest of the 2014-15 Wildcats. Coming from someone who's been around the program for more than two years now and knows what goes into the season, junior Alex Poythress said it's made a world of difference in team chemistry.
"It's real advanced," Poythress said. "People know the plays already. People know where to be at. Coming in as freshmen, a couple of us new, we didn't have too many veterans. Last year we had me and Willie (Cauley-Stein), but this year we have six or seven guys that know what to do that's been there and done that and know where to be at."
With more experience and fewer newcomers to break in, it's allowed Coach Cal to accelerate this team's growth.
"I've got guys that understand so I can do it the way I used to coach, which is, 'Get to the back and watch what they're doing,' " Calipari said. "I talk them through. 'You're not at the front. You're at the back and watch what they're doing.' And many of the things they're talking each other through. Dakari (Johnson) is talking, the twins are talking, Alex is talking, Marcus (Lee) is talking. They're able to talk to each other because they know what to say.
But perhaps no two have benefitted more from experience and a sense of understanding than the catalysts of the offense, the Harrison twins.
At this point now, compared to where they were a year ago, they're stronger, they're leaner, they're faster and they're more confident. Watching practice for the last couple of weeks as the Cats prepare for their exhibition tour in the Bahamas, it's obvious they look and feel more at ease running the offense, particularly Andrew Harrison.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," Andrew Harrison said. "I feel like I take on a leadership role and I'm having fun with a lot of guys asking me questions and stuff, and I try to help them as much as I can."
It was difficult for them to lead last year because they didn't know what they were doing. They didn't know what they were doing because Calipari didn't know how he wanted them to play. And Calipari didn't know how he wanted them to play because they arrived on campus late, a factor that Coach Cal downplayed as the Cats struggled in the regular season but fully admits now.
"I just think that they needed me to give them better direction," Calipari said. "They needed me to basically better define their roles. But why do you think I had to wait so long? Why did it take me so long? Why didn't I walk in the first day and say, 'This is how you're going to play'? ... I wasn't sure. Now, I could make it about me and say, 'You're going to play this way,' or I could watch them play and say, 'The best thing now that I've been with you for two months, the best way for you to play and us to play is this.' And it took me two and a half months."
As everyone saw in March, when they got some experience underneath their belts, they took off.
If preseason practices are any indication, they've done nothing but take last year's postseason momentum and run with it.
"They already know what we're trying to do," Calipari said. "There's no anxiety. They're comfortable out on the court where last year they were trying to figure themselves out, and that's why you had that body language stuff. You don't see any of that this year, and the only time they do anything like that is toward each other, like where they're saying something to each other. Short of that it's been pretty good."
Their late-season success last year made them think long and hard about returning for their sophomore seasons, but both decided to come back to try to capture that national championship they came so close to winning in April.
When the Harrisons contemplated coming back, Calipari told them they would have to answer questions in their sophomore year that NBA scouts and general managers had of their game. He gave them those questions and they answered them on the spot, "one, two, three."
"(The questions were), were we athletic enough or were we quick enough to guard our positions, and I think we worked hard this summer to prove that," Aaron Harrison said.
For one, both lost weight this season to get quicker, to jump higher and to guard better. Officially, Aaron Harrison is down to 212 pounds from 218 a season ago, and Andrew Harrison is down to 210 from 215, though Andrew said it was more like 222 last year.
A change in their diets was the biggest factor in their change.
"I feel a lot faster, a lot quicker, jump a little higher now," Andrew Harrison said. "I feel like I'm the best player I can be right now."
Their commitment this offseason has helped them gain more trust from Calipari. Where last year's practices reflected more of a teacher-student relationship - Coach Cal was doing a lot of instructing while the twins were doing a lot of listening - this year's early-season practices feature more of a partnership. There is a little more constructive back and forth between Calipari and the Harrisons, there is less bad body language, and there is a lot more leading from what look like the two team captains.
"He saw how hard I worked over the summer and how committed I am to this," Andrew Harrison said. "I know how committed he is and we just have an understanding."
Said Calipari: "They had habits they had to understand weren't going to work. Let me tell you something: If you're doing something your whole career and it gets you a scholarship to Kentucky, the most coveted scholarship in the country ... and you did certain things to get you that offer ... your first thought is, 'This got me here, I'm going to go with it.' But what got you here, a lot of times, isn't going to get you there, to that next level."
It took the Harrisons nearly a full season to grasp that. And as crazy as it seems to comparatively call a pair of 19-year-olds wiser and more mature, they are.
"You just got to mentally be ready for practice when you go in every day and go in to get better," Aaron Harrison said. "That comes with getting older and being mature and just taking it more serious."
An extra summer - one they didn't have a season ago - has just been icing on the cake for their ongoing development.
"I think it was just us realizing how much work it actually takes to be great," Andrew Harrison said. "Just realizing or just getting that confidence you had back in high school, just feeling like you're the best player. That's what it really was."
A week from now, the Kentucky men's basketball team will be in the Bahamas for a series of exhibition games. On Monday, UK's equipment staff tweeted a photo of the special uniforms UK will wear for the six games.
It was an emotional moment for incoming UK freshman Karl-Anthony Towns after he was named 2014 Boys Gatorade Player of the Year on Tuesday night. Check out complete video of his acceptance speech above.
If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed former Gatorade Player of the Year Brandon Knight on stage to present the award. The former and current Wildcats posed for a photo after Towns took home the award.