Kentucky has now played three games in the Bahamas, winning all three in impressive fashion. I’ve watched all three games. Here are five takeaways from those three games:
1. I did not see this coming: I knew Kentucky was going to be good this season. Everyone with a pulse knew that Kentucky was going to be good this season. There’s a reason they are going to be the preseason No. 1 team in any poll worth paying attention to. But after just 10 practices this summer, and with two potential starters sitting out with injuries, I did not expect to see these Wildcats steamroll their way through the first three games the way that they have. The Wildcats have now won their three games — two against Puerto Rico and one against French club Chalon-Reims — by an average of 28 points, demoralizing their opponents in the second half.
Now keep in mind, while these are professional basketball players, they don’t have all that much to play for. This isn’t Puerto Rico’s A-squad. Chalon-Reims has had even less time to prepare than Kentucky. Those players have their livelihood on the line if they hurt themselves in a game like this; Kentucky’s kids are competing to earn playing time this season. That’s an important distinction when it comes to effort, especially in the second half of these games.
But still: I’ve been impressed.
2. The key sentence in Part 1: “Competing to earn playing time this season”: The single biggest issue that John Calipari is going to face this season is from a playing time perspective. He doesn’t really have a small forward on this roster; he essentially has four guards, three power forward and three centers, plus Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis. That’s a lot of talent, but it’s also a lot of people to keep happy without a lot of minutes available to give them. Will Marcus Lee be happy if he gets relegated to sitting the bench again this season? How will Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson react if Karl Towns comes in and steals their minutes at center? If Trey Lyles and Lee out play Alex Poythress, will the junior be OK with seeing his minutes cut?
Who knows. At this point, we don’t know how healthy Cauley-Stein and Lyles are, let alone what the breakdown of front court minutes will look like. And Cal has proven that he is adept at getting his players to buy into a role and put the team first when it comes to playing time. This season will be his toughest challenge yet.
3. Alex Poythress finally playing with energy: For the past two seasons, Calipari has been trying to get Poythress — a 6-foot-7 forward with all the physical tools that you could ask for — to consistently play with energy and aggression. In the three games in the Bahamas, Poythress has done just that. He’s crashing the offensive glass, he’s getting out and running in transition, he’s making plays defensively. If he continues to do that, he becomes a completely different player for the Wildcats. And while he hasn’t quite added those perimeter skills that everyone was looking for out of him, it’s important to remember that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wasn’t exactly the most-skilled perimeter player when he donned a Kentucky uniform. With the versatility of Lyles and Towns, Kentucky should be able to get by with Poythress at the three … assuming he consistently brings that junkyard dog mentality.
4. Kentucky will be at their best with Tyler Ulis on the floor: Andrew Harrison has gotten better at the point guard spot. Aaron Harrison has gotten better, too, and I think it’s fair to say that both of them are better players, in a vacuum, than Ulis is at this point. But what Ulis brings to the table will make this Kentucky team that much better. For starters, he is a nightmare on the defensive end of the floor, one of those tough, quick little pests that always cause trouble for opposing ball-handlers. He’s also a pure point guard offensively, a kid that can read pick-and-rolls and can run offensive sets equally well. He doesn’t need to “get his”. He doesn’t need to score. He’s satisfied setting the table for his teammates, which is something that needs to happen with the talent Kentucky has on the floor.
Don’t be surprised if Calipari eventually favors a lineup that features three guards, even if that means that Ulis will be on the floor at the same time as both of the Harrisons.
5. Karl Towns is going to be Kentucky’s best freshman, if not their best player: He’s just so talented. He can score in the post. He can hit threes. He’s a very good passer. He just has a terrific feel for the game offensively. On the defensive end there are some question marks, but if he plays as a center and is asked to, essentially, defend the rim and rebound the ball, he should be more than adequate on that end of the floor.