UK's Platoons, Pace Overwhelm Pikeville in First Exhibition
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."