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In his opening statement following Monday night's Blue-White Scrimmage, UK head coach John Calipari said he would have liked to see a few guys play with a little more confidence.
But for freshman power forward Karl-Anthony Towns, confidence has never been an issue.
The 6-foot-11 forward from Piscataway, N.J., brings a rare skill set to a team with more McDonald's All-Americans than many current NBA rosters. On the offensive end Towns sees the floor exceptionally well for a player of his size, he can space the floor by shooting the ball consistently out to 24 feet, and he has developed more post moves than the average 18-year-old hoops star.
Developing these traits on the basketball court comes with the utmost level of confidence and swagger, which is obvious - even to the average fan of the game - as soon as he laces up his size-20 sneakers and takes the court. But Towns, along with a few of his teammates, failed to come out with the type of competitiveness and tenacity the coaching staff was hoping for.
"He fumbled balls today," Calipari said. "There were some one-handed catches, some rebounds he didn't bring in. Plays like that, you know, those are plays that are easily made. Go make those."
Calipari watched the majority of the action as a spectator seated at the end of the scorer's table with his wife, and newly appointed special assistant Tony Barbee. As he grew noticeably more distressed throughout the first half, Cal could not help but intervene during the under-eight media timeout.
He marched over to the blue team's bench, only to have a one-way discussion with his prized freshman big man. When the horn sounded, Towns came out of the timeout with an entirely different mindset.
"When the game started out, it was different," Towns said. "You're playing for the first time this year in front of all these people, and it's very competitive. So we've got to change the gears. You could see when people started to get a little touchy, and some people started getting scored on, it became competitive because we were trying to win. So once that mindset kicked in, we really turned it up a notch."
Towns finished the scrimmage with totals of 20 points and 13 rebounds while knocking down all six of his free-throw attempts.
The Big Blue Nation was spoiled on Monday night in Rupp Arena with the absurd matchups on display, but it was the only real glimpse fans will see this season of the one-on-one battle between Towns and sophomore center Dakari Johnson that takes place each day behind the closed doors of the Joe Craft training facility.
Johnson is every bit of 7-feet tall and 255 pounds. With his bruising style around the basket, Towns awarded Johnson with a nickname of his own: "The bear," he joked after taking numerous blows from Johnson throughout the scrimmage.
"He's a lovable bear, but not on the court," Towns said. "He's competitive and he comes hard every day. So he makes you have to bring your A-game every day too, but I enjoy it because it makes me a better player. It allows me to use my body more."
Even with the undeniable star power Towns brings to this 2014-15 Kentucky team, it's hard to look past the glow on his face when he starts to rave about his teammates. And with a team that is capable of going 12 deep into the rotation if necessary, there is plenty of praise to go around, especially with the depth on the interior.
"You've got three 7-footers. You've got Marcus Lee. You've got everybody around the rim," Towns said. "You really have to challenge yourself to even have the courage to go inside against all of us. But we make that a focal point as the big men that we protect the rim at all cost. And we make sure that the guards know that we have their back."
With such a loaded roster, especially in the frontcourt, it is typical for an incoming freshman to take a back seat to some of the veteran guys, but not Towns. His confidence in his own ability has him taking a much different approach to his first season as a Wildcat. He is focused on using this year as the ultimate learning experience.
"For us to have this opportunity to play at the University of Kentucky with so many great big guys, you're talking about the best in the whole nation in one gym all the time," Towns said. "Being able to learn from Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Trey Lyles, you're talking about a lot of different styles that you get to look at every day and try to utilize and implement their skills into your game too."
For those who know Towns, they will tell you he only wants to be great. When he committed to the Wildcats in December 2012, Towns announced his goal of becoming one of the all-time greats in the history of Kentucky's program. Obviously that is no easy task, but it is clear that the freshman big man is primed and ready for the spotlight.
Towns will begin to carve out his legacy on Sunday, Nov. 2, as the Cats take on Pikeville in their first exhibition at 7 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena.
For most teams, competitive is the last word one might use to describe a preseason intrasquad scrimmage.
But, as the record nine McDonald's All-Americans and 10 projected NBA Draft picks indicate, most teams aren't Kentucky.
"You know we have a lot of competitive guys on this team," said sophomore Dakari Johnson. "When you put us out on the court, we are going to compete against each other."
Instead of first- and second-string rotations, Kentucky features two "platoons" of talented lineups. Instead of six or seven players earning the lion's share of playing time, the Wildcats boast 12 athletes with a chance to see the floor this season. For reasons like these, the annual Blue-White Scrimmage was no different than the countless high-intensity practices that took place prior: competitive.
"It's just the beginning of the season," said Johnson. "We still have a lot of things to work on and get better at. We started off as a bunch of competitive guys, and that's a good start."
In a talent pool laden with NBA potential, Johnson was able to stand out among his peers Monday night. The 7-foot Brooklyn native finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks while logging minutes for both the Blue and White squads. Ironically enough, his teammates are some of the steepest competition Johnson is expected to face all season.
"Just knowing that you're going to come out with four other guys that have the same competitive spirit, know how to play, and are talented as you," Johnson said, "it's just going to be great."
Johnson spent most of his time battling on the low block with freshman big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
"(Guarding Johnson is) very difficult," Towns said. "He's a bear down there. He's a bruiser."
After declining the opportunity for a possible first-round selection in last June's NBA Draft, Johnson spent the summer improving his conditioning and basketball skill set in order to help the Wildcats reach the pinnacle this year of which they fell just short last season.
"I feel much lighter," Johnson said. "That's the main focus. The bigs have to run the floor, because when you play with point guards like Tyler (Ulis) and Andrew (Harrison), they'll get you the baskets if you run the floor."
Throughout the scrimmage, Johnson wowed fans with plays that he simply was not able to make a season ago.
"I feel like I'm moving way better than last year," Johnson said. "Just getting the weight off me helped me a lot. Not getting tired so fast has really helped me, too."
Head coach John Calipari echoed the 19-year-old's sentiment.
"He's playing with great energy," said Calipari. "I mean, he's going after every ball. He has a fight and a fire in him."
Though the Blue team defeated the White by an official score of 94-66, the scoreboard was reset to 0-0 with 11:36 remaining in the second half. It was during this time that Johnson left the White team and traded places with Towns, who was originally on the Blue. Johnson's new ensemble won the second contest, 29-22.
Even while encouraging spirited competition every day in practice, Calipari has instilled in his players that the ultimate team goal is for each student-athlete to improve as an individual.
"I enjoy (facing Johnson) every day because it makes me a better player," Towns said. "Playing against Dakari, (I) get to utilize some things and implement some things that he does so well on the post into my game. It can definitely change my game."
Johnson, who averaged 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds and started 18 games for last season's national runner-up team, looks to make the most of Calipari's in-and-out two-platoon system every time he's on the floor.
"Every time I step on the court, I just want to play my hardest and just compete out there," Johnson said. "That's what (Monday) was."
"We've got to challenge each other every day to be the best human beings we can be, and the best basketball players we can be," Towns said. "Having Dakari around makes the job very challenging, but it makes it very deserving, very loving, and just very fun. (We're) fortunate to have him around and on the team."
He couldn't help but interject on occasion, but he spent most of his time watching his two platoons go head to head.
It was in those moments as an observer that he realized just how unique a coaching challenge he's created for himself. The thing is, he's created the same challenge for his peers.
"The issues I'm going to have, the other coach is going to have, too," Calipari said.
Given the opportunity, any opposing coaches who happened to tune in to UK's annual preseason scrimmage surely would trade places with Coach Cal.
Kentucky's unmatched depth was on display, with seven players scoring in double figures. Devin Booker led the way with 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting, while Andrew Harrison had 19 for the Blue team, which came away with a 94-66 victory.
Though the final score wasn't close, this edition of the Blue-White Scrimmage was a departure from years past.
"I think we all could see that we were all really competing hard at each other and acting like it was a Louisville-Kentucky game, but it was against each other," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who impressed with 18 points and nine rebounds. "We really went hard at each other, but we had a lot of fun. I definitely had fun. I really enjoyed today and I just can't wait to play with the other team on our team."
"The other team on our team." That serves to illustrate what the Cats will try to do when they're all wearing the same color uniform.
For the better part of three months now, Coach Cal has been preparing his team to play the two-platoon system. Nonetheless, he can't be sure from games on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour, practices or the scrimmage exactly what it's going to be like to coach the system when he doesn't have free rein to reset the score with 11:30 remaining as he did on Monday.
"I don't know," Calipari said. "We're going to find out. We haven't done it yet. Today we just played a bunch of guys."
Slightly more thought went into it than that.
The Blue team -- before Cal switched up the squads -- was comprised of Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Towns. White's starters were Tyler Ulis, Booker, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson. Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins split time between the two teams.
"You want to have a point guard on each group," Calipari said. "You want to have some size on each group. And how do they fit together?"
Experience is also a consideration.
"I'll probably try some different combos," Calipari said. "I kind of like two freshmen on a team, three vets on a team. It gives it some balance."
With all the thought Calipari is putting into the composition of the two platoons, the players are steering clear of concerning themselves with who belongs on which team. They're just playing.
"The combinations we don't worry about," Towns said. "We just worry about going out there and doing everything we need to do to get a W. That's not our job. Our job is to go out there and execute the plan Coach Calipari gives us."
The plan is clear, though the particulars are still a work in progress. There's no manual for what UK is about to try.
"We're just going to see what happens," Calipari said. "I mean, I'm committed to it. It's the best thing for these players. Now we got to make it the best thing for our team."