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But just like the first two opponents UK played in its previous three games on the Big Blue Bahamas tour, Kentucky took the Dominicans' best shot early in the first half Friday and then ran away with things in the second half.
Platoon after platoon, player after player, wave after wave, the Cats just wore out the professionals and broke them down.
When it was all said and done, despite an entertaining and back-and-forth first 15 minutes and a late comeback attempt, UK wiped another opponent off the floor Friday at the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas.
Former UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who was on the other end of Friday's 83-71 Kentucky win as the Dominican Republic national team head coach, was impressed at how far along his former team is.
"They've kept it going from how we ended (last) year," Antigua said. "Obviously the chemistry, the knowing one another, knowing the expectation from the coaches, all those things early on in a season ... they already have. They're on step five instead of step one or two, which is what we had to (start with) the past few years."
For the fourth game in the Bahamas, UK combated professional experience with an overwhelming amount of talent, depth, dunks and Alex Poythress.
The junior forward continued his best string as a college player with arguably his best game yet. In just 20 minutes of action, he posted a game-high-tying 20 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block.
On a team that's shined from top to bottom, he's shined the brightest.
"That is the reason I came back: I want to prove I'm still one of the best," Poythress said. "I'm just trying to show the world."
Poythress wasted little time in making an impact Friday, scoring six points in the opening five minutes as the Cats took a 14-9 lead. His bucket at the 8:50 mark ignited a 7-0 UK run, but the Dominicans, as expected with a talent-loaded roster that features a much-improved Eloy Vargas, NBA veteran Francisco Garcia, Edgar Sosa and Jack Michael Martinez, hung around early.
When Sosa cut UK's lead to 34-30 on a steal and a layup with 6:20 left in the first half, it appeared everyone was in for the first close game of the week. But Poythress stepped up again.
The catalyst of a 13-6 run at the end of the half, Poythress threw down a dunk and followed it with a 3-pointer to give the Cats a little halftime separation.
"What's different is just his whole mindset," teammate Dakari Johnson said of Poythress. "He's more in attack mode. Whenever he gets it he's looking to attack more and also he's just playing to his strength. He's just increasing on that."
Dakari Johnson was in attack mode as well on Friday.
The Dominicans elected not to double team the 255-pound big man to start the game, and they paid for it dearly. Though he's leaner this season, Johnson still threw his weight around Friday, scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds by the first media timeout.
"I felt like Dakari set the tone," said assistant coach Kenny Payne, who served as UK's head coach for the second time in three games as John Calipari evaluated from the stands. "I thought he did a good job in the post. I thought he played well down there. He's tough to deal with, and if you're not going to trap him, I mean, he's really hard to deal with."
Johnson slowed down as the game wore on, but he still ended up with 10 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double of the trip. He looks slimmer, more athletic and poised to have a big sophomore campaign.
"It's just been great," Johnson said of the trip so far. "Just the balance and the overall team, everybody contributing and everybody doing their job and playing their roles, it's been really fun for all of us."
Johnson said he's been motivated to step his game up by the superb play of freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. With those two, Marcus Lee and the eventual additions of Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, UK looks to have the most formidable front line in college basketball.
"We've got so many different, legitimate players that it's very difficult to find out, who are you going to take away?" Payne said.
It was Lee's turn to contribute to start the second half.
The dunking specialist started the half with two straight slams, one of which he caught on a lob, cocked back with his right hand and then flushed in the basket with authority. He finished the game with eight points, all on dunks, and his last 10 field goals over the last two games have all been slams.
"His energy is what is important for us," Payne said. "We need his energy. He's an energetic player. That's his personality and that's what he brings to the table."
Lee's back-to-back dunks sparked a 9-0 run to start the second half, all but putting the game out of reach for the Dominicans.
"The first five minutes of the second half, which they've done in every one of their other games, they get that separation," Antigua said. "Then you're swimming upstream after that."
The Dominicans fought upstream in the second half and nearly made a game out of it with an 8-0 run. They got as close as 12 several times with time remaining and then 10 in the final few seconds, but they could never get it back to single digits.
"We did not dictate the pace of the game defensively and they outrebounded us," Payne said. "They only had two bigs, so that says a lot right there. We've been outrebounding teams by 20-plus. ... Some of this could have been attributed to the two days off. They were maybe a bit rusty, but at the end of the day we got the W. They played OK, not great."
And yet, UK won by double digits, beating another professional team - its best competition yet - by double digits. That has to say something.
"I think it says a lot when you're playing grown men opposed to other college kids," Payne said. "The fact that that team was full of NBA players and European players says a lot."
Assistant coach Kenny Payne
Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress
Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress
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."