Alex Poythress and Andrew Harrison
Alex Poythress and Andrew Harrison
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Alex Poythress and Andrew Harrison
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."
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."
A week from now, the Kentucky men's basketball team will be in the Bahamas for a series of exhibition games. On Monday, UK's equipment staff tweeted a photo of the special uniforms UK will wear for the six games.
It was an emotional moment for incoming UK freshman Karl-Anthony Towns after he was named 2014 Boys Gatorade Player of the Year on Tuesday night. Check out complete video of his acceptance speech above.
If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed former Gatorade Player of the Year Brandon Knight on stage to present the award. The former and current Wildcats posed for a photo after Towns took home the award.
On the countdown's last day, Coach Cal appeared.
Ranking only behind Florida's Billy Donovan, Calipari has been named the nation's second-best coach by ESPN. Many UK fans will surely quibble with the ranking, but surely not the story that accompanied the ranking. Eamonn Brennan tells the tale of Coach Cal's first five years in Lexington, capturing what makes UK's head coach so good at what he does.
Here's an excerpt:
Last season's March run was also a helpful reminder of Calipari's sheer coaching ability. We laud coaches for bringing their teams along at the right time, for finding their peak in March. That's the Tom Izzo specialty. Calipari found that gear in his team at the last possible moment last season, and once he figured it out, it was clear why everyone -- himself included -- was so high on Kentucky in October. There is real tactical substance here: a unique, restrained offensive system, an ability to coax great defense out of young players and real fluency in advanced scouting and statistical ideas.
Link: Calipari second on ESPN's countdown
With the announcement of several games over the last few months, everyone has known for some time now that Kentucky's 2014-15 nonconference schedule was going to be special.
Just how special became clear on Wednesday with the release of UK's full nonconference slate.
Kentucky will play 10 opponents who made the postseason in 2014, seven NCAA Tournament teams and a handful of programs who have legitimate hopes of making a run at the Final Four during this upcoming season.
UK will play bluebloods like Kansas and North Carolina, continue arguably the greatest rivalry in college basketball with Louisville, and make neutral-site trips to the United Center in Chicago and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home to two of the Cats' exhilarating games during their magical 2014 NCAA Tournament run and the site of the 2015 Final Four.
Like last year, Kentucky will kick off the season with back-to-back home games at Rupp Arena, this time against Grand Canyon University (Nov. 14) and Buffalo (Nov. 16).
John Calipari is hoping the home games will prepare his team for an early-season showdown with Kansas on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis. The matchup with the Jayhawks, who trail only UK for the NCAA's most all-time wins, is a part of the State Farm Champions Classic. It's the fourth straight year Kentucky has participated in the event.
The Cats' stay on the road will be brief as they will return for an extended home stand. Over the course of nearly a month, UK will play eight games within the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. First up will be Boston (Nov. 21), followed by Montana State (Nov. 23), UT Arlington (Nov. 25) and Providence (Nov. 30). Kentucky played and beat the latter two last season.
The schedule then heats up at the start of December.
The Cats, who return eight scholarship players from last season's national runner-up team, will face off with an equally experienced Texas team on Dec. 3 before taking on Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 7), an NCAA Tournament team a year ago, and Columbia (Dec. 10).
The final three games of the nonconference schedule are as good as it gets. North Carolina concludes UK's mega home stand on Dec. 13 before the Cats head to Chicago to face UCLA for the inaugural CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 20.
Finally, Kentucky will close out the nonconference schedule with its annual rivalry game with Louisville on Dec. 27 at the KFC Yum! Center. This year's game is being dubbed as the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
UK's 2014 Southeastern Conference schedule will feature nine home games and nine away games, which will be announced at a later date. It's the second third straight year the SEC will feature an 18-game schedule.
Prior to the regular season, the Cats will host a pair of exhibition games at Rupp Arena. The first will be Nov. 2 against Pikeville followed by Georgetown College on Nov. 7. Both are in-state schools. Big Blue Madness is set for Oct. 17 and the annual Blue-White Scrimmage will be on Oct. 27.
Complete games times and TV information will be released at a later date.
A by-the-numbers breakdown of the schedule is available below, but first a look at the full nonconference schedule.
By the numbers
The schedule this season, as we mentioned above, is grueling.
Filled with some of the bluebloods of college basketball, opponents that made the NCAA Tournament last season and are only supposed to get better this year, and mid-majors who are expected to finish at or near the top of their league, it's hard to find a more challenging nonconference schedule than the one the Wildcats appear to have this year.
And that's not by coincidence.
Coach Cal, with the recent help of UK Deputy Director of Athletics DeWayne Peevy, has always tried to form a slate that will prepare his players for the NCAA Tournament and put them in a position to compete for a national championship. The end goal is to bolster his team's RPI, give his players the best chance to succeed and help his program obtain a favorable NCAA Tournament seed, but he must do all that while making sure he doesn't break down his players before the SEC schedule rolls around.
Doing that isn't always easy.
How many big-time games against the likes of a team like Kansas is enough? How many is too many? How many neutral-site games do you play? When do you play marquee games with such a young team? What "mid-major" opponents are going to help your RPI and not hurt it? All those things go into consideration when Calipari and his staff build the schedule.
The 2014-15 schedule uses the same formula of the last couple of years in that it mixes neutral-site games that reflect an NCAA Tournament setting with marquee matchups at home and on the road.
But this one, on paper, looks to be the best of the Calipari era.
Taking the final rankings from last year, the average RPI of UK's nonconference opponent in 2014-15 is 97.4. Six opponents on the slate finished last season in the all-important RPI top 50, including five of the final seven nonconference opponents.
Furthermore, the Cats' 13 opponents in the upcoming year posted a winning percentage of .655 last season, considerably better than the .570 winning percentage UK's 13 opponents in 2012-13 ended with and still better than last year's admirable mark of .634. Remember, Kentucky's strength of schedule last season was No. 2 in the country and this one appears to be even tougher.
But perhaps the most telling proof of the difficulty of the schedule lies in the opponents' postseason play last year. Ten of the 13 nonconference opponents were in some sort of postseason tournament last season (that does not include conference tournaments) and seven of them were in the NCAA Tournament. Five of the teams made it to the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament or farther.
Obviously there is no way to predict how those opponents will do next season, but the majority of UK's opponents look primed to build on their 2013-14 success.
For one, Kentucky's most high-profile opponents next season -- Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Texas and UCLA -- return a bulk of their major producers from a year ago. All five are expected to be in the preseason top 25 and several could be in the top 10.
But the depth of the schedule comes with teams like Providence, Eastern Kentucky and Boston. The Friars play an exciting style of basketball that brought out the best in Willie Cauley-Stein last season, EKU nearly knocked Kansas out of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and Boston is expected to return four of its six leading scorers from its regular-season Patriot League championship squad.
It's impossible -- and unwise -- for Kentucky to avoid scheduling "mid-major" opponents, but UK can ill-afford to take those opponents lightly in 2014-15. Of UK's seven opponents from outside the so-called "major" conferences, five finished tied for third or better in 2013-14 regular-season play and one (Boston) finished atop the conference. That fits right in line with Calipari's philosophy to play teams that will content for their leagues' automatic bids.
Also of note, 13 of Kentucky's nonconference opponents will hail from 11 different conferences. UK will also play three opponents for the first time.
For those numbers and more, check out the breakdown chart below:
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