Alex Poythress had seven points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in UK's loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As soon as Kentucky unveiled its 2013-14 schedule, fans circled Nov. 15 on their calendars.
Sure, they looked forward to marquee matchups with Michigan State, Louisville and North Carolina, but Sunday's game against Robert Morris was attractive for another reason: revenge.
UK's NIT loss to the Colonials in March came to define a disappointing season, drawing national coverage even with the NCAA Tournament going on. Eager to erase the sting of the defeat and all it came to represent, fans saw a chance to truly turn the page and move on to a much-anticipated season.
Understandable as those feelings may be, the Wildcats don't share them.
"It's just a basketball game," said Jon Hood, who played 15 minutes in RMU's court-storming win. "It's not a revenge thing. It's about us getting better."
When UK (2-1) and Robert Morris (2-1) square off in the Keightley Classic at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, the Rupp Arena setting will be completely different than RMU's Sewall Center. So will Kentucky's personnel.
Robert Morris, however, will post many of the same challenges as last year though the Colonials lost key contributors Velton Jones and Russell Johnson.
"They're still playing just as hard, just as physical as they did," John Calipari said.
This time, however, Calipari believes he has a team better suited to cope with that physicality. He doesn't need to look any further than the box score from Tuesday's loss to Michigan State to figure that out.
"Well, the one thing is when you outrebound a team like Michigan State, you're way tougher than we were a year ago," Calipari said.
Much of that is on the strength of freshman sensation Julius Randle and his classmates, but Alex Poythress's role should not be discounted.
Less than eight months ago, the sophomore forward was telling reporters he needed to return for another year of school. Reflecting on his freshman year after a six-point, two-rebound effort at RMU, Poythress spoke bluntly about how he needed to improve as a player.
Now three games into his sophomore season, he has arguably become UK's steadiest player outside of Randle. In a reserve role, Poythress is averaging 8.7 points and 10.7 rebounds and his stock, in the words of Coach Cal, is "skyrocketing."
"Alex is playing out of his mind," Calipari said.
His coach isn't the only who notices the change.
"He does look like a different guy," Hood said. "He understands what he has to do now. He understands how hard he has to play and how he has to play. Coach has done a great job helping him and we're in practice trying to push him to do that and hold him accountable."
Poythress will now face off against the team that played a role in precipitating his transformation.
Similarly, Willie Cauley-Stein will be playing the team that prompted him to declare the following about his immediate NBA future and that of his teammates.
"Nobody's ready for it," Cauley-Stein said in March. "I don't think anybody's ready for it mentality-wise, body-wise, athletic-wise."
Cauley-Stein surely remembers how he felt when he issued that quote, but neither he nor Poythress have spent much time recalling the sentiment to their younger teammates.
"They haven't talked much about it," Randle said. "We just all want to win, whether we're playing Robert Morris or we're playing Michigan State."
You can be sure Randle means it when he says revenge isn't on his mind because he didn't even watch UK's loss to Robert Morris, which happened just a day before he committed to Kentucky.
"I was out to dinner with my family," Randle said.
Randle is much more concerned about the first loss of his own college career, suffered against Michigan State. In spite of his 27 points and 13 rebounds, the Cats' comeback effort fell short, 78-74, triggering memories of UK's Champions Classic loss from a season ago.
After that defeat against Duke, the Cats expressed optimism that they had fared so well against an experienced opponent. This year's UK team wanted no part of any silver linings.
"Well, this team cried," Calipari said. "Let me just put it that way. This team cried."
But as painful as the loss may have been, Calipari believes it will end up being good for his team.
"The only thing that brings about change is a crisis," Calipari said. "In this sport that I coach, it's a loss. You lose, there's a crisis. There's a crisis in the staff, there's a crisis on the team, there's a crisis in the program. We got to change this. And to survive, everybody's got to accept a different role and do things a little differently and go after it, and that's where we are right now."
Just when it looked like Coach Cal's impressive streak of top-ranked recruiting classes was coming to an end -- it has to at some point, right? -- Kentucky's head coach put together yet another one of the top signing classes in the country.
Touted as one of top two or three recruiting classes so far, John Calipari announced four players for his 2014 class during the early signing period on Thursday. Trey Lyles (Indianapolis), Karl Towns (Metuchen, N.J.), Devin Booker (Moss Point, Miss.) and Tyler Ulis (Chicago Heights, Ill.) have all signed national letters of intent to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, starting in the 2014-15 season.
All four players in the signing class are regarded as consensus top-40 players, and two of them are rated in the major recruiting services' top 15.
"I'm really proud of this group as far as where they are academically, what type of people they are and their basketball ability," Coach Cal said. "All four of these guys are skilled for their position and they have the ability to score. We're happy to announce they will be joining us next fall."
With a handful of the nation's top recruits still undecided and the spring signing period still to go, it remains to be seen whether Calipari will have the top class for a fifth straight season, according to Rivals. But with yet another collection of talented kids, never count Coach Cal out.
Check below for a recap of each player, including a bio blast, quote from Cal and video highlights.
6-foot-10, 245-pound power forward from Indianapolis
Ranked No. 7 overall by ESPN and No. 8 by Rivals and Scout
Tabbed No. 1 power forward by Scout and No. 2 by ESPN
Averaged 17.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks as a junior at Indianapolis Arsenal Technical High School
Two-time Indianapolis City Player of the Year (2012-13)
Averaged 20.3 points for Team Canada in the 2013 U19 World Championships
"Just because of Coach Cal's record with players like me, what he's able to do with guys such as myself, and just really getting us to the stage that we want to be at, which is for me the NBA. I want to be an all-star, and he's had a lot of guys that have been able to step up to that stage and become all-stars in the NBA. His overall pitch to me was just perfect. I think it's going to be the best situation for myself."
"DeMarcus Cousins is out there getting 30 and 15, so that's definitely something I want to be. Julius (Randle), he's just a man-child out there. He has a chance of going No. 1. That just gives them extra points for me, guys at my position that (Calipari has) developed and got into the NBA."
"At 6-10, Trey can play both inside and outside. He has the skills to score in both areas. He's seen what some of our former guys are doing in the pros right now and has said he wants to follow in their path. My hope is he's our next beast."
What they're saying about Lyles
"Highly skilled big man understands how to use his strength to create leverage and hold position. Similar to a young Carlos Boozer, not a high flyer but scores with jump hooks and short jumpers. Excellent rebounder who plays physically on both ends." - Eric Bossi, Rivals
"He is terrific around the basket, displaying a variety of post moves and the ability to finish at the rim. He can also face-up and score effectively. He's not an explosive athlete, but he finds ways to make plays and outworks people." - Jeff Borzello, CBS
7-foot, 235-pound forward from Metuchen, N.J.
Ranked No. 6 overall by ESPN and No. 11 by Rivals and Scout
Tabbed No. 3 center by Rivals and ESPN and No. 4 by Scout
Averaged 21.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5.6 blocks last season for St. Joseph's
New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012-13
Tabbed New Jersey's top player by The Star-Ledger
Led St. Joseph's to back-to-back state championships
Played the last two summers with the Dominican Republic National Team, the first summer under Coach Cal and this past summer under assistant coach Orlando Antigua
"Kentucky is just such a great school. They're just such a powerhouse in basketball and at the same time they're such a great academic school. I just felt that Kentucky was the best choice."
"For me, being with Coach John Calipari on the Dominican team, he never asked about time or about how many shots to take or anything. He just expected me to compete at the highest level every day and just make sure that I played not just for him, not for anyone, but my family and my country. I really respected that a lot out of him."
"Karl, at 7 feet tall, brings great versatility. He can obviously score it inside, but his ability to shoot and handle it like he's a guard will spread defenses out. His growth from his first stint with the Dominican team until now has been unbelievable, and I'm looking forward to working with him on the collegiate level."
What they're saying about Towns
"A personable big man with big skills, Towns has great hands, soft touch and is comfortable using either hand around the rim. He has good ball skills and range on his jumper but sometimes roams the perimeter a bit too much. An above average rebounder when he plays in the lane." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Towns is an outstanding prospect, and his uncanny ability to stretch a defense with his shooting range is remarkable, as he knocks down shots to 22 feet. For a 7-1 player his passing skills are terrific, as he shows floor vision and the unselfishness to hit the open man. At this stage of his young career he might be more productive outside rather than inside. As he develops a paint game and learns how to use his mammoth size, he will reach his potential." -- Paul Biancardi, ESPN
6-5, 185-pound shooting guard out of Moss Point, Miss.
Ranked No. 18 overall by ESPN, No. 30 by Rivals and No. 31 Scout
Rated the No. 3 shooting guard by ESPN and the No. 5 by Scout
2012-13 Mississippi Gatorade State Player of the Year
Averaged 29.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2012-13
"I felt like Kentucky's worst situation would be better than a lot of better situations at other schools." -- via Evan Daniels of Scout.com
"It's a lot of what everyone is doing nowadays. Going in kind of as a package. I want to be around people I'm comfortable with, people I've hung out with and people I keep in contact with. ... It was mainly my decision, but Tyler and I have been talking about going to college together since our first camp, the Elite 100. Right then I was like 'wow' I wanted to play on the same team as Tyler." - via Evan Daniels, Scout.com
"Devin is a scoring machine. At nearly 6-6, he can play three different positions. He's got great range, which should help us spread the floor when he's playing. What I like most about him is his confidence in his ability and his desire to compete with the best."
What they're saying about Booker
"Booker projects as a big shooting guard who can use his size and strength to counter more athletic wings. Very effective as a catch and shoot guy and he's hard to take the ball from because of his size." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Booker, at 6-foot-5, 185 pounds, is a true shooting guard who plays with great confidence on the offensive end. He has a quick trigger and deep shooting range that extends beyond the 3-point arc. Booker also has a smooth midrange pull-up jumper that he can execute going right or left in addition to having the ability to drive to the rim, where he is a crafty finisher in heavy traffic. Booker spots up on the break, comes off screens and knocks down deep jumpers. He will be worth his weight in gold against zone defenses, where he will stretch the defense and be ready to hit perimeter jumpers off the catch. Booker can rebound and start the break too. He has a good basketball IQ and feel for the game. -- Reggie Rankin, ESPN
5-8, 150-pound point guard from Chicago Heights, Ill.
Ranked 29th nationally by Scout and 33rd by both Rivals and ESPN
Tabbed the No. 4 point guard in the country by ESPN and No. 6 by Scout
Averaged 21.9 points, 4.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals as a junior at Marian Catholic High School
Named the Time Illinois Boys Basketball Player of the Year
Guided his team to a team-record 29 wins last year and the program's first sectional title
Owns his school's single-season and career record for points
"Kentucky is the biggest stage in college basketball. I like how Coach Cal produces point guards and sends guys to the pros and wins games."
"I like Coach Cal. He's straightforward with everything. He just tells you the truth. He says if you're not built for this you can't come here. If you're not ready for the spotlight, the competition, and if you play bad, the criticism, you can't play here."
"Tyler is the ultimate competitor. His heart and his ability to make people better set him apart from his peers. He can score in bunches, and like every point guard I've had, he brings a little something different to the table."
What they're saying about Ulis
"Lacks size but plays the point guard position without fear. A natural leader who has a good feel for when to attack, when to pull back and when to turn into a jump shooter. Will obviously need to add strength but moves feet very well and has quick hands on defense." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Tyler Ulis is an ideal fit at Kentucky because he is a true set-up, pass-first point guard who keeps possession of the ball until he is ready to drop off an assist or score himself. With a tight dribble and vision he can see the game and play at any speed. He is special, specifically, in two ways. First is his competitiveness as he is usually prepared to compete from the tap and fights it out until the end. Second, he can make a jumper out to the arc which means you can't just play him for the drive and fish. Under John Calipari, Kentucky has had the No. 1 class four out of the last five years. With all the talented scorers and big men that Kentucky brings in, Ulis will make each one of them look good, and even though he is small, he will never back down from an opponent or a challenge. " -- Paul Biancardi, ESPN
Julius Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 78-74 loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CHICAGO -- As soon as the questions about Kentucky's early-season matchup with Michigan State started coming, John Calipari had a line ready.
With the youth of the Wildcats and uncertainty with which they would enter the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, Coach Cal narrowed the possible outcomes into two: winning or learning.
There will come a time when the Cats come to realize how much can be taken away from their loss to the Spartans, but that time wasn't in the locker room following the 78-74 defeat.
"You had guys crying in there, which is a good thing," Calipari said. "That was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after Indiana (two years ago). So you had kids crying in there, and I want it to hurt like that."
Alex Poythress was ready to start the learning process a few minutes later as he took the podium for UK's postgame press conference.
"We learned a lot about who's fighting and who can keep it going," Poythress said. "When the going gets rough, we just keep going."
The Cats have every reason to take pride in that fact.
The experienced Spartans did to Kentucky what Calipari feared they would, taking advantage as the five freshmen and two sophomores who comprise his rotation acted their age. Within 3:11, the Spartans were up 10-0 on the strength of UK's sloppiness with the ball.
"They had never been in an environment like this, one," Calipari said. "And two, when guys get that, that get into themselves a little bit. It's natural. So now everybody is trying to do their thing and it looks discombobulated and that's what it was and that's what I expected."
UK treaded water for the remainder of the first -- largely thanks James Young, who scored 15 of his 19 before the break -- and trailed 42-30 at the end of the half. It was then Calipari drew up a new game plan on the fly and moved Julius Randle from the perimeter to the post and essentially scrapped his Dribble Drive offense.
"Well, we just said at this point, the only time they're stopping him is when you hold the ball," Calipari said. "So quit holding the ball. Just take it to the lane and ball fake and shoot it over 'em and if you miss it we'll send everybody to the glass. That was our offense: Throw it up and go rebound it."
Randle struggled in the first half, left frustrated by a packed-in Spartan defense as his drives and spin moves were repeatedly thwarted. The second was a different story, as Randle -- whom Calipari termed a "fighter" after the freshman's third double-double in as many games -- scored six points within the first two minutes.
"He's a great player," said Poythress, who was a Calipari-described "beast" with his seven points and 12 rebounds. "When he gets it going we look for him and he just gets it going."
Randle would go on to score 23 of his game-high 27 points -- including two free throws that briefly tied the game at 66 with 4:48 left, to which the Spartans responded with a swift 5-0 run -- after halftime. He drew multiple defenders on every touch, but never relented.
"What I loved about him, he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "For a freshman, that speaks volumes."
As the final seconds ticked down on the comeback effort, Randle was clearly exhausted. He still managed to score UK's final basket with 42 seconds left to cut Michigan State's lead to two points, but had to excuse himself from postgame interviews due to muscle cramps.
As Randle got treatment on those cramps, Michigan State's last possession was probably running through his mind. Opting not to foul with five seconds differential between shot and game clock, UK forced a Denzel Valentine miss, but Branden Dawson was there on the weak side for an easy put-back to clinch a win and end talk of a 40-0 UK season.
If not for 16 missed free throws in 36 attempts for the Cats, the conversation would likely have continued. The Cats still believe they will be a good foul shooting team, but Calipari says it's time for them to take ownership in that area.
"My hope is I'm the office at night and it's 10:30 and they walked 15 steps across the street to go into the practice facility and I see guys shooting them on their own," Calipari said. "That's my hope. But we'll see because they've gotta take it on."
After the game, Calipari said he had "no idea" how UK was able to stay within four points of a team as talented and experienced as Michigan State shooting 55.6 from the free-throw line and committing 17 turnovers. The answer came in the way the Cats rebounded.
With Randle and Poythress tirelessly attacking the glass, UK outrebounded Michigan State 44-32 and had 24 second-chance points. Considering the Spartans had 66 rebounds in their season opener, that's impressive. Considering the history Izzo's teams have of dominating on the glass, that's borderline unbelievable.
"They beat us in what we do well," Izzo said.
The way these two physical teams traded blows in the United Center, fans and media alike -- though it's only November, as Calipari often repeats -- wondered whether the matchup could be reprised down the road.
"Well, I hope we do because it probably means we'd both be playing in April," Calipari said. "So let's hope we do play. I hate to play friends. I really don't like playing friends, but if it's in April I'm fine playing whoever we're playing at that point."
For UK to reach that point, Calipari knows there's much work ahead. He anticipated his team wouldn't be ready for a stage this big at the tip, but they were much closer when the final buzzer sounded.
"I knew this would get their attention in the first half," Calipari said. "The biggest thing is if you don't do this together you will not win. You'll never be a special team, so you've got to truly do this together and that's both on defense and offense."