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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


Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and 10 rebounds in UK's win on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and 10 rebounds in UK's win on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - Hoping to evaluate instead of coach, John Calipari walked from the Kentucky bench, across the court and to the top row at Kendal G.L. Isaacs Gymnasium to watch Monday's exhibition game in the Bahamas.

He had to have liked what he saw.

Kentucky got pushed around early by a veteran team of professionals, fell behind by eight points, and then answered the bell with an impressive 12-0 first-half run from its unit of "backups" and a dominant second-half performance that ultimately led to an 81-58 rout of Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket on Monday.

The Cats, after leading by five at halftime, quickly built their lead to double digits and never looked back. At one point UK led a team that features four players with NBA experience by 29 points.

Not bad for a group that played without its head coach, who sat in the stands Monday to watch and take notes and at one point in the second half operated ESPNU's center-court camera for its national broadcast.

"At the end of the day these kids did it and it had nothing to do with coaching," said assistant Kenny Payne, who served as UK's head coach for the game on Monday. "We have a whole bunch of very talented young men who play great together and love each other and they're learning about each other. It makes our job a lot easier."

Their job, from the standpoint of managing expectations, is about to get a whole lot harder if the early performances in the Bahamas keep up.

Kentucky routed a French professional team that was big, athletic and supposedly superior to the Puerto Rican national team reserves UK thwarted by 25 on Sunday. But after failing to match Champagne's physicality in the opening minutes of the game, UK's second unit ripped off 12 straight points midway through the second half and dominated the rest of the way.

The first-half run was highlighted by a pair of 3-pointers from Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, two reserves last season who are perceived to be at the end of UK's two-platoon rotation.

"That's a big part of what everybody's role is on this team, one through 12, 13 ... is that when you step on that floor, there is no garbage time," Payne said. "So when you're on that floor, you have to play with confidence and you are to play well. If you make mistakes, you're making them with confidence. That's the key."

If UK's supposed end-of-the-rotation guys are keying runs that knock out professional teams, just how good is this group? On a trip that was billed as a study abroad trip - a tour of games that is supposed to help the Cats learn about themselves and learn how to compete - everyone else is quickly learning that this team might be worth the hype.

At the very least, it appears to be much further along at this time of the year than last season's team, which started the year with 40-0 expectations, disappointed in the regular season, but then made the national championship game.

"They're a really big team," said Champagne forward Da'Sean Butler, who was a star on the 2010 West Virginia team that got a firsthand look at one of Calipari's most talented teams at UK and knocked it out of the NCAA Tournament. "I heard (Jay) Bilas had them picked to win (the national title). I might have to jump on the bandwagon. They're a really good team, man."

Butler was impressed with the younger team's ability to respond to an early eight-point deficit, step on a much older team's throat and not let it off the mat.

"They just kept punching," Butler said. "...  If they can keep us down like that, I'm pretty sure they can keep some good teams down too."

Payne thought the Cats needed to get punch in the mouth so they and the coaching staff could see how they would respond to adversity. It is, after all, a trip to learn.

"The telling thing was that after they hit us, we made adjustments," Payne said. "We played more physical. We dictated the pace of the game. And we're not just dictating the pace with grown men; you're dictating the pace with grown men that play this game for money. That's a great sign. That should build confidence in them and in each other and individually because that's what it's going to take to win."

Aaron Harrison started the adjustments.

Trailing 20-12, Harrison came up with a steal, got in transition and posterized a challenging defender with a one-hand slam. That dunk paved the way for the second platoon's game-changing run.

"I thought (that play) was pivotal," Payne said. "I thought the biggest part of that was the transition into what are we. Are we going to be a soft defensive team or are we going to be a in-your-face, aggressive, dictate-the-pace, get-in-the-passing-lanes (type team)? We don't care who you are; we're getting after it. And he made that play, which ignited everything for us."

Karl-Anthony Towns took Kentucky's five-point halftime lead and built on it with a dominant second half. The 6-foot-11 freshman forward, drawing on some of his experience with the Dominican Republic national team, went head to head with grown men, some a decade older than him, and recorded a double-double (19 points and 10 rebounds).

Towns experienced mixed results after a good but not great game Sunday in which he roamed the perimeter a bit too much. Towns said he got off to a rough start again Monday, but he got his game on track when he went inside and went to a power game.

"I think that my size sometimes deceives people, but at the end of the day, I have to do what's best for the team, and today, for me, the best thing I could do for the team was give them an inside presence," Towns said.

Payne called Towns' performance on the glass "unbelievable," but he said the coaching staff is not satisfied because of Towns' tendency to want to be a perimeter big man.

"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," Payne said.

Towns could take a page out of Alex Poythress' book, who strung together his second straight solid performance with 16 points and eight rebounds.

"He came back to school to prove to the world I'm one of the best forwards in the country," Payne said of Poythress. "You see his athleticism. (He) is one of the most athletic forwards in the country. Now mentally he has to put together the fight, the determination to go out and prove to people how good he is because some people still question because they see the inconsistencies. Me personally, I think he's going to have a phenomenal year. That's why he's here. That's why he came back."

Kentucky employed a two-platoon system again and wore the French team down in the second half.

"(They're) deep, man," Butler said. "You see us today. You sub out five and your next five is just as strong as your first five, it's good things coming your way. Very good things."

When Calipari returns to the bench and adds Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles to the mix, it will be up to him to figure out if the two rotations are feasible.

"That's why you pay John Calipari a whole bunch of money," Payne said. "He'll figure it out."


Kenny Payne


Andrew Harrison and Karl-Anthony Towns


Two veterans star in two-platoon attack

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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) 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 talent-loaded roster.

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.

Officially, 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.

"He 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 high.

"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."

Where those God-given abilities are best utilized has been a topic of debate for the past season or so, especially in this preseason.

Should 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."

Calipari - 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.

"Everybody 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.

"It 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.

Whether 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.

"We 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.

By the 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.

"He 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.

"I 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


Alex Poythress and Andrew Harrison


John Calipari will lead UK in six exhibition games in the Bahamas next week. (Chet White, UK Athletics) 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) 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."

Recent Comments

  • dave and linda: we are looking forward to another exciting season of wildcat b-ball.This lineup of talent is second to none, and ANY read more
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  • Paul in KY: Will believe it when I see him do it in a competitive SEC game. Coach Cal has never played a read more
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  • Bill Coad: Having known Charlie since birth I might be bias in my opinion but this young man has what most of read more
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