Aaron Harrison had a team-best 17 points in UK's exhibition win over Georgetown College on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
With a pair of exhibitions out of the way, Kentucky has now improved to 53-4 all time in the preseason. The immediate reaction to that record is how does an elite program like Kentucky lose four tune-up games?
Well, it's not always smooth sailing to start the season. For this year's Wildcats, though, it has been nothing but an incredible display of offensive efficiency and domination on the defensive end of the floor.
In their most recent outing the Cats defeated Georgetown College 121-52, controlling every facet of the game. And after being routed by a margin of 69 points, it was all positive feedback from the opposition.
"I knew they were good coming into this game, but sitting out there watching it in front of their eyes, on the sideline, honestly I don't see how they're going to get beat this year," Georgetown head coach Chris Briggs said following Sunday night's game in Rupp Arena.
Sophomore shooting guard Aaron Harrison led the way in the scoring column with 17 points for the Cats, but that was just a minor detail in what was one of the more impressive box scores you will come across in college basketball this season.
Seven Kentucky players scored in double figures, although no player saw more than 19 minutes of action. The team compiled a field-goal percentage of .639 and shot 44 percent from long range, good for 1.46 points per possession.
"On a good shooting night like tonight it's really tough to guard us because we can spread the floor and we have good drivers," Aaron Harrison said. "And obviously we have great big men and great size."
The guard play for Kentucky is sure to be much improved from a season ago with the Harrison twins in command in their second year, while also adding sharp-shooting freshman Devin Booker and tenacious point guard Tyler Ulis to the mix in the second platoon. But what has this team unanimously ranked No. 1 in college basketball preseason polls is the unbelievable depth and size in the frontcourt.
The bigs for Kentucky were dominant in their second and final exhibition. They were relentless on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 54-26 while tallying 23 second-chance points.
The Cats threw down 19 dunks, which made up over half of the team's 64 points in the paint. Kentucky's seven frontcourt players shot a combined 32 of 43, adding up to an amazing 74.4 percent from the field.
Fourteen different Wildcats recorded at least one assist in the game. It's rare to even see 14 different players check into a basketball game.
Many of the baskets came in the transition game as a result of big guys making the extra effort to run the floor, a point of emphasis in the early stages of the season.
"If that big guy runs, you run right there and try to throw him the ball to reward our bigs for running," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Think about it, every time we're on there, it's either Dakari flying, Willie flying, Karl(-Anthony Towns) flying, Marcus Lee flying. Your bigs better fly. And you better be playing more than two bigs. You better be playing four or five bigs."
Unfortunately for the cross-town foe, Georgetown lacked the size and depth necessary to match up. And with seven interchangeable big men for Kentucky, it was clear how worn down the Tigers were in the final eight minutes of the second half when the game turned into a highlight reel.
There are few teams around the country who even have the manpower to avoid this problem if they face the Cats this season, which begins for UK on Friday at 8 p.m. against Grand Canyon.
With all the positives that can be pulled from Kentucky's first two appearances against other competition it is easy to rave about all the possibilities of the season ahead. But Calipari asks the Big Blue Nation to take a step back and brace themselves for a few inevitable hardships along the way, in spite of what Briggs had to say.
"We're going to hit some bumps in the road," Calipari said. "There's going to be games that playing this many is going to be hard. You know why? Because I'm expecting 10 guys to play well every night out and that's not going to happen."
Willie Cauley-Stein had 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks in UK's win over Georgetown College on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
To say Chris Briggs showered Kentucky with praise would be an understatement. It was more like a downpour.
The Wildcats had just dismantled Briggs' Georgetown College team in an exhibition, and he couldn't help but express his wonder.
"We had the same problems that the rest of the country probably will have the rest of this year," Briggs said. "Those guys are unreal. I told the guys in the locker room, they could have beaten some NBA teams tonight, there's no question in my mind."
There were no NBA teams in Rupp Arena on Sunday night, so the Cats had to settle for a 121-52 win over perennial NAIA power Georgetown. UK was every bit as dominant as it was in its first exhibition win over Pikeville, with Aaron Harrison leading seven double-figure scorers with 17 points. Harrison shot 5 of 7 from 3-point range and the Cats 12 of 27 as a team.
The Cats shot 46 of 72 (63.9 percent) from the field and had 32 assists, rendering Georgetown's short-lived 2-0 lead to start game a distant memory. UK's defense stifled the Tigers to the tune of 27.9-percent shooting, nine blocks and nine steals.
"We played really well," Harrison said. "We came out a little slow, but we picked it up and got going. It was fun."
The 21,490 fans in attendance surely agreed, what with the dunk show Willie Cauley-Stein highlighted with a hand-behind-the-head pose for two of his 12 points. Of course, Cauley-Stein channeling Hall of Famer Karl Malone wasn't the last time the NBA would be invoked.
Briggs, even though he felt a little guilty adding fuel to UK's hype machine, even went on to say he had a hard time imagining how the Cats will lose this season. A season removed from 40-0 expectations defining his team before an NCAA Tournament run, John Calipari made sure to distance himself from the talk.
"Coach, did you do that to me?" Calipari said. "So he also said we're going to have 40 wins and win by 25, right? No, this will be a process. We're going to hit some bumps in the road."
Though the ride was smooth on Sunday, the Cats don't need to be told the regular season - which begins on Friday against Grand Canyon - will bring challenges.
"We know that the opponent is a little small and at some point we're going to play against bigger people and bigger size," Dakari Johnson said. "But we do have 12 people that can play at that high level, so I think it's for our benefit."
Few players are benefiting from UK's two-platoon system more than Johnson.
The sophomore had 12 points and 10 rebounds, needing just 17 minutes to tally a double-double. Even though he's in the best shape of his life after adopting a new training regimen and diet in the offseason and his playing time is limited to four-minute spurts, Johnson is still finding ways to tire himself out on the court.
That's the idea.
"He was exhausted in the last time out," Calipari said. "He grabbed his shorts was breathing so hard. I told the guys, 'Look at him, that's what you all should feel like walking off this court.' A friend of mine watched our game last week and said, 'As soon as your guys realize they can play even harder than they're playing it becomes scary. It becomes scary.' "
The platoon system might mean the Cats won't put up the same gaudy individual numbers they otherwise would, but they're having no trouble adjusting to this point.
"Not anybody in the country has as many guys that deserve to play and can play at a high level like us," Johnson said. "It's just--once the other team gets fatigued, it's tough. And once we keep on getting fresh and keep on going in, we can have a lot of fun with it."
They already seem to be having plenty of fun, evidenced by the fact that they spend a bulk of their time on the bench not sitting at all.
"The team, we're just together," Johnson said. "We like to have fun and we just cheer on our teammates. If they make a great play, we're going to let them know that they made a great play. It just feels like--on the court and off the court, we're more together."
That togetherness, Coach Cal says, is why he's comfortable trying something few coaches ever have in using the platoon system.
"I just went on TV and I said the only reason this will work is because the players are allowing it to work," Calipari said. "And that means you've got kids with high character. You have kids who care about one another, that trust each other. Basically trust what we're doing here that we got their back."
That trust will be tested throughout the season, as well as the system Coach Cal is using. He said on Sunday he would evaluate the platoons after 10 or 12 games, stating plainly that the approach is not set in stone.
"They're going to be a game or two we're going to lose and you're going to look at me and say what, and I'm going to say it's about these kids, I'll figure it out, I'm not doing it yet," Calipari said. "And this is going to play out. It may be a tweak. It may be more than that. We'll figure it out."
The players know they have work ahead of them too, but that doesn't mean they're not confident.
"We're just a really good team and a lot of talent," Harrison said. "I think if we continue to work together and play together, I think we can do really well this year."
On top of being a respected coach and recruiter, Rohrssen has famously dabbled as an actor, starring alongside the likes of Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey.
Nonetheless, one subject escaped him in school.
"You know, for some people, even like myself, chemistry was the hardest subject," Rohrssen said.
The same is true, though not in quite so literal a sense, for the Kentucky basketball team. The Wildcats, set for the second of two exhibitions on Sunday at 7 p.m. against Georgetown (Ky.), are still in the process of figuring out exactly how they fit together.
John Calipari knows UK, at least to start the season, will operate in a two-platoon system. Last Sunday, the Cats dominated Pikeville by sharing time in two groups, the first featuring Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns and the second Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson.
Whether those platoons remain the same is still a question mark.
"It's Friday now and we've still got two more days and maybe three more practices to go before that," Rohrssen said. "So it could change; it could be the same."
In that victory over Pikeville, all 10 members of the two platoons played at least 16 minutes, and none more than 20. The system calls for that kind of balance on paper, but the coaching staff doesn't expect for it to play out that way when the season heats up.
"It's still to be determined," Rohrssen said. "I think Cal might've spoken to you guys already; he said it's not communism. That was kind of his phrase about it, where those that will produce are going to get more time or find themselves with the opportunity for more time."
Taking on the in-state Tigers, boasting a 3-0 record and a No. 8 ranking in NAIA Division I, will arm UK with 40 minutes more of data to evaluate the platoons. Just as importantly, it's another chance to adjust to the game-day routine.
"One of the things that's nice about college basketball is you get a chance to get out there, simulate game days, go through a shootaround or a walk-through in the morning the day of a game, have your pregame meal with your team, just to get in a rhythm and get comfortable, and especially for the new guys," Rohrssen said. "... So it's good to get some of those exhibitions under your belt, and this will be another step towards our improvement." Booker getting better
Devin Booker. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Though he showcased his talent at points, Devin Booker was relatively quiet during UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour.
The 6-foot-6 guard averaged just 5.2 points and shot 34.4 percent from the field, but Rohrssen pinpointed Booker as the freshman who has improved the most since.
"Well, one guy that's really improving rapidly and on a day-to-day basis is Devin Booker," Rohrssen said. "He's really made some very good strides since he's been here on campus, like most of the freshmen."
Those strides were apparent last Sunday, as Booker scored 16 points and had three assists in 16 minutes of UK's exhibition win over Pikeville, leading the second platoon in scoring in the process. Booker did his damage in a variety ways, showing the dead-eye shooting for which he's known in hitting 2-of-4 3-pointers, but also running the floor and scoring at the rim.
"He's just finding things a bit more comfortably now, getting up and down the court a lot quicker, using some of his athleticism," Rohrssen said. "He moves well without the basketball. He's releasing his shot a lot quicker."
Rohrssen talks recruiting
When he first committed to using the two-platoon system in the preseason, Coach Cal said it could represent a "watershed moment" should it work as planned.
By making it work, he said UK could change the face of college basketball just like in 2010 when five Wildcats were drafted in the first round by proving so many talented players could coexist and succeed both as a team and individually.
But for now, UK is sticking to a more familiar script on the trail.
"Recruiting, these guys have been very receptive," Rohrssen said. "It's nice to be ranked No. 1 in the polls. It's a nice way to have a conversation, go into somebody's home."
Pitching the platoons, according to Rohrssen, is premature. Could UK have a similarly constructed roster with 12 players deserving of time next season? Sure. Is it a guarantee? No.
"I mean, that's to unfold next season," Rohrssen said. "If we're talking about this season, Kentucky is very well received no matter where you go and who you speak with it. It's nice to have that royal blue UK on your chest when you're walking into a high school or a home."
With the NBA a week into the 2014-15 season, several former Wildcats have dominated national headlines throughout the league.
First, Julius Randle entered his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers in the most disturbing fashion imaginable. After logging just 14 minutes of play in the season opener against Houston Randle went down with a broken tibia in his right leg.
Randle's injury will leave him out of action for the remainder of his rookie season. But after being selected as the seventh overall pick in last June's draft the power forward is expected to play a significant role in rebuilding the Lakers back up to a championship level franchise.
Randle being carted off the court on opening night stole the attention away from what was a very strong outing from Terrence Jones, who has now solidified himself in a starting role for the Houston Rockets next to All-Star center Dwight Howard. Jones posted 16 points and 13 rebounds against the Lakers and has shown no signs of slowing down through week one.
Jones has been the answer for what was a failed experiment last season in Houston when the Rockets attempted to play Howard and 7-foot center Omer Asik side-by-side in the frontcourt. This offseason Asik decided to go elsewhere and he ended up in New Orleans where he combined with All-Star forward Anthony Davis on opening night for 40 points, 34 rebounds and 14 blocks as the Pelicans defeated the Magic 101-84.
Davis came into the season with sky-high expectations and after a near triple-double in game one, and a 30 and 15 outing in game two, the 6-10 star is more than living up to his No. 3 player ranking by ESPN.
Another ultra-talented big man having his way in the Western Conference is fifth-year pro DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings have been mediocre at best during the first three years of his career, but after winning a gold medal this summer in the FIBA World Championships in Spain with Team USA, Cousins - now 24 years old - seems more than ready to change the culture in Sac-town.
The Kings' week one schedule was arguably the most difficult in the entire league as they faced off against three Western Conference playoff teams from a year ago, recording a 2-1 record in those games. Most recently Sacramento began a two-game road trip on Sunday with a gritty win over heated rival the Clippers at Staples Center. It was a statement game for the 6-11 center as he finished with 34 points, 17 rebounds and five assists. If Boogie can combine consistent contributions like this with his goal of just five technical fouls this whole season, it will be impossible to keep him out of the All-Star game in April.
Two former Cats who are considered to be locks to represent the eastern conference in the All-Star game are point guards Rajon Rondo and John Wall.
Rondo's availability for the season opener was in question all entire offseason after suffering a hand injury, but the Celtics' floor general has not missed a beat in his first two outings. Averaging just shy of a triple-double after the first week, Rondo is among the league leaders for point guards in several statistical categories, a feat that is not likely to change as the season advances.
John Wall has posted a double-double in each of the Wizards' first three games. That sort of production will almost certainly continue as Wall carries the load for his young team during the first several weeks of the season without backcourt running mate Bradley Beal. Washington is looking to build on last season's playoff run and Wall will be the centerpiece for whatever success the Wizkids enjoy in 2014-15.
Wall's former Kentucky teammate Eric Bledsoe was a hot topic this offseason as experts debated whether or not he was worth the max contract he desired. In the end, Bledsoe was able to reach a five-year deal worth $70 million. Now in his fifth year in the league, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound guard has set out to shake off the injury woes that have defined his career to this point and drag his team in Phoenix to a playoff appearance in the West for the first time since 2010.
Entering the 2014-15 NBA season, Kentucky has 19 ex-players on 16 different rosters. Cat Scratches will provide a unique inside look at former UK fan favorites, as well as a detailed TV schedule and updated statistics as the season moves along.
Stats through games on Sunday, Nov. 2)
Rajon Rondo, Boston - 8.5 PPG, 10 APG, 8.5 RPG, 2 SPG James Young, Boston - Earned a DNP in season opener, scored six points in six minutes in game two Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte - 11.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG in three starts Nazr Mohammed, Chicago - DNP for the Bulls in week one Jodie Meeks, Detroit - Out 8 weeks with a back injury Terrence Jones, Houston - 16.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG Julius Randle, LA Lakers - scored two points in 14 minutes off the bench before sustaining a season-ending leg injury on opening night Tayshaun Prince, Memphis - 4 PPG, 2 RPG in 18 minutes per game Brandon Knight, Milwaukee - 19.7 PPG, 9 APG, 6.7 RPG Anthony Davis, New Orleans - 28.5 PPG, 16 RPG, 6 BPG, 2.5 SPG Darius Miller, New Orleans - DNP for the Pelicans in week one Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia - 7.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.3 BPG in three starts Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix - 12.7 PPG, 6.7 APG, 6.3 RPG Archie Goodwin, Phoenix - 2.5 PPG, 1.5 APG in 10 minutes per game DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento - 23.7 PPG, 12.3 RPG Patrick Patterson, Toronto - 4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 APG in 21 minutes per game Chuck Hayes, Toronto - grabbed three rebounds in 12 minutes in his only appearance in week one Enes Kanter, Utah - 8 PPG, 3.7 RPG in three games as a starter John Wall, Washington - 21.7 PPG, 11 APG, 4.7 RPG, 3 SPG in more than 37 minutes per game
Week two TV schedule
This week's nationally televised games featuring former UK players:
Tuesday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Miami 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV Wednesday: Indiana @ Washington (John Wall) 8:00 p.m. on ESPN Thursday: San Antonio @ Houston (Terrence Jones) 8:00 p.m. on TNT Friday: Memphis (Tayshaun Prince) @ Oklahoma City 8:00 p.m. on ESPN Saturday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis, Darius Miller) @ San Antonio 8:30 p.m. on NBA TV Sunday: Philadelphia (Nerlens Noel) @ Toronto (Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson) 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points in UK's exhibition win over Pikeville on Sunday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
More than once, John Calipari has commented publicly that Kentucky was in for a reprieve when the season finally came.
With all the talent on the floor in practice and the reduced workload on the Wildcats playing in a two-platoon system, Coach Cal said games would be easier.
With one exhibition in the books, he might be right.
"When Coach says the practices are way harder than the games, it's true," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You really felt it tonight. Like, I feel like I was fresh all the time."
Cauley-Stein and the Cats looked it too.
With no player on the floor for more than 20 minutes and 10 playing at least 16, Kentucky overwhelmed NAIA foe Pikeville in a 116-68 victory in front of 21,036 at Rupp Arena on Sunday night. Karl-Anthony Towns led UK with 22 points on 10-of-11 shooting in just 18 minutes and the Cats racked up 29 assists and shot 65.3 percent as a team.
"We played really well," Towns said. "The team did a really good job. I'm really happy with the assist totals, really. It shows we're moving the ball. Such a talented team, you don't expect a lot like that. We did a great job as a team. We ran the floor, we contested a lot of shots, but we have a lot of things we need to work on. That's what we're going to start back on tomorrow."
The performance led Pikeville head coach Kelly Wells to declare UK "the most talented team in the country" and potentially the most talented in program history, but the visiting Bears hung around in the early going. When K.K. Simmons buried a jumper at the 14:04 mark for two of his game-high 28 points, Pikeville pulled to within 22-18.
Against this Kentucky team, with its mass substitutions every four-to-five minutes, it simply wasn't sustainable. By the end of the first half, UK led 67-40 on the strength of a 21-0 run.
"What you saw is Pikeville came out of the gate and they were flying, and then each sub I made, each time by the third sub and then the fourth sub, all of a sudden you see them missing eight straight shots," Calipari said. "They were making every shot for a while. We left them open and they made it. And that's the whole point of what we're trying to do. Play fast, don't be in a hurry, though we're playing fast."
Fast may be an understatement.
Running off of turnovers generated in both the press and half-court, missed shots and even makes, the Cats scored 26 of their 36 fast-break points in the first half. On the strength of all those easy baskets, UK scored 1.523 points per possession and took, on average, just 8.88 seconds attempt its first shot.
Cauley-Stein has been through everything from a first-round NIT loss to a trip to the national championship game, but he's never seen anything quite like this.
"Way faster, just because the platoon system you can play up and down and you don't have to worry about getting extremely tired or slowing the ball down and playing a half-court game," said Cauley-Stein, who had 10 points and six rebounds. "Now you've got five in, five out every four or five minutes that you can just run and run and run. You just wear people down."
Sunday's exhibition was played with an experimental 30-second shot clock, but UK rarely needed those extra five seconds. The game featured 80 total possessions, nearly 14 more than last year's national average and three more than UK's 2013-14 season high.
"If we can score quick, we will," Calipari said. "If not, let's create a good shot."
Good shots were all UK got, especially in the first half. The Cats shot a blistering 27 of 33 (81.8 percent) from the field in the first 20 minutes.
"They don't ever settle," Wells said. "They don't settle. I've never been a part of a team where we gave up 80 percent field goals in the first half. They don't settle for anything but dunks and layups. You and I make a conventional bounce pass and chest pass and every time they're throwing lobs and we look like middle-school kids out there at times because they're just so big."
Among UK's historically tall frontcourt, Dakari Johnson (13 points), Poythress (12 points) and Trey Lyles (10 points) joined Towns and Cauley-Stein in double figures. The Cats also held a 49-25 rebounding edge and outscored Pikeville in second-chance points by a margin of 35-15.
Devin Booker (16 points on 6-of-9 shooting) was the only UK guard to crack double figures, but Andrew Harrison may have been the most valuable player. The sophomore point guard scored five points on just two field-goal tries, but piled up nine assists against zero turnovers in a performance Coach Cal called "ridiculous."
"Andrew was excellent," Towns said. "He was really taking control of the game as a floor general. He's improved so much since last year. I think everyone can tell the difference in his game from last year to this year. He's a true leader on the court too."
Harrison is setting the tone for a UK team embracing a new platoon system. The result of that system, even though its original purpose is to allow 12 players deserving of playing time to see the floor, is a faster style of play that figures to fluster even the most talented opponents.
"Having a platoon system really makes us--allows us, actually, to expend more energy at given times and then regain a lot more quicker," Towns said. "I feel bad for the players last year having to regain all the energy back in about a minute timeout. This time they get to maybe rest for five-and-a-half, five minutes and really get their legs right back under them."
So, what does UK, which has a week off before a second exhibition next Sunday against Georgetown (Ky.), do for an encore to a lightning-quick debut?
"For us, we still have to push the tempo a little more," Towns said. "I think it was a little too slow. I think we would like it a lot faster, but that's a good start."