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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."
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
Marcus Lee and Derek Willis
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."
Andrew Harrison and Karl-Anthony Towns
Andrew Harrison and Karl-Anthony Towns