Five Takeaways from Kentucky’s Bahamas exhibitions

Chet White/UK Athletics
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Big Blue Nation invaded the Bahamas last week, as the Kentucky Wildcats took another trip to the Atlantis Resort to play four exhibition games against professional competition.

And man, was their performance on the islands dominant.

Kentucky knocked off three professional teams as well as the Bahamian National Team by an average of 29 points in their four games.

Here are the five things that I learned while watching the Cats play:

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KENTUCKY IS GOING TO BE VERY, VERY GOOD

This isn’t exactly breaking news.

Kentucky is, after all, currently sitting at No. 3 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, and I am on record saying that the top three — Kansas, Gonzaga and Kentucky — is so close that any of them are justifiable as a preseason No. 1; Duke could be tossed in that mix as well.

And after watching 160 minutes of Wildcat basketball this weekend, that ranking is more than justified. Kentucky has it all. They haave size. They have depth. They have perimeter scoring. They have guards that can really, really pressure the ball. They are going to be able to get on the glass. Their sophomores look terrific. Their freshmen look ready, and have the luxury of not being asked to carry the load from the get go.

Perhaps most importantly, there is lineup versatility. They can play big; or small; or roll out a lineup that can press and force turnovers; or play a team that is going to be able to put up points in a hurry.

And we still haven’t really gotten a chance to see E.J. Montogomery in action yet.

Suffice to say, Kentucky looks like they are going to be farther along early in the season than I expected,

I’m not quite ready to bump them up in my preseason top 25, but that’s mostly because I don’t want to overreact to only seeing them play without actually seeing how good Kansas or Gonzaga — or those Blue Devils — look as well.

That said, I still do have some of the same concerns that I had before, and that’s because …

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… THE KEY TO KENTUCKY’S SEASON IS GOING TO BE ROLE ACCEPTANCE

To a point, this is always the case with Kentucky, isn’t it?

Their best teams are absolutely overloaded with talent — see: 2009-10, 2011-12, 2014-15, etc. — to the point that Anthony Davis is taking the fourth-most shots on the team or Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker are averaging 21 minutes a night. The reasons those teams were as good as they were on the court, and not just on paper, was because lottery picks that eventually turned into NBA superstars were perfectly fine with seeing their minutes reduced or their shots limited for the sake of winning.

John Calipari is the best in the business at getting guys to buy-in for the good of the team.

It’s incredible, really.

And he’s going to have to do it again this season.

It starts at the point guard spot, where Cal brought back former five-star recruit Quade Green while bringing in top ten prospects Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans, the latter of whom reclassified in order to enroll at UK a season early. Those are three of the top 20ish best point guards in the sport this season. At least one of them is going to be forced to come off of the bench, and in the event that Cal goes with a two-point guard look, they are all going to have to accept that they will be playing quite a few minutes off of the ball. (More on this in a minute.)

I think Reid Travis is going to be forced into a situation where he has to play a lesser role than anyone expected. Part of that is because both P.J. Washington and Nick Richards look like they’ve taken significant steps forward this offseason (again, more on this below), but it’s also because he was somewhat exposed during this trip. Travis is an absolute hoss on the block. He might be the strongest player in the country, and he’s undeniably a sensational rebounder, but he’s also somewhat limited athletically and quite a bit of his production the last couple of seasons was a result of being Stanford’s No. 1 option when there wasn’t a No. 2 option.

That’s not to say that he won’t be effective. There will be a bit of a learning curve, but I think our expectations for Travis should be something closer to 11 points and seven boards than, say, 15 points and nine boards.

Hell, he might not even start, because the biggest question I have this Monday morning is …

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… WHO IS NO. 4 AND WHAT DID HE DO WITH NICK RICHARDS?

I was expecting both P.J. Washington and Quade Green to develop into critical pieces for Kentucky this season.

I was not expecting Nick Richards to looks like a player that could force first-team all-Pac-12 transfer Reid Travis to the bench, but that’s exactly what Richards did during those four games in the Bahamas.

Richards fits the mold of the kind of center that Cal loves. He’s a 7-footer with athleticism that can catch lobs at the top of the square. There’s a reason that he started all 37 games for Kentucky last season despite the fact that he was, frankly, not very good. H

But he was awesome in the Bahamas, averaging 12.0 points while showing off an array of quick post moves and a soft touch that extended out to about 16-feet. He’s not exactly an instinctual rebounder and, despite his size, I think Washington may be a better rim-protector, but Richards is very much going to be a player that will have a positive impact on this team.

And as good as he looked in the post and as a lob target, I think his shooting touch will be just as important to this group. Both Washington and Travis are question marks as shooters, and while mid-range jumpers are not great shots, Richards’ ability to consistently make shots out to even just 12-feet will help to unclog the lane.

It’s amazing what a little bit of confidence will do for a player.

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TYLER HERRO IS GOING TO FORCE COACH CAL TO PLAY HIM

The biggest question I have with this team right now is simple: Who their go-to guy?

Over the course of the last two seasons, Kentucky’s offense has essentially centered about two things: Point guards making plays off the bounce and in ball-screen actions, and shooters/scorers getting run off of baseline screens. The former centered about De’Aaron Fox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, respectively. The latter involved Malik Monk (as a three-point shooter) and Kevin Knox (more in the mid-range).

That will change somewhat this season, as Washington is probably the odds-on favorite to lead Kentucky in scoring at this point, but I do think that it’s fair to be worried about how trustworthy he will be as someone that you give the rock to and count on to make a play.

Enter Tyler Herro, who averaged a team-high 17.3 points while coming off of the bench during this trip. Not only is he clearly the best three-point shooter on the team, but he is the guy that is the best-suited to running off of those baseline-screens. He is going to get the shots — if not play the role — that Knox, Monk and even Devin Booker have gotten in past seasons, and while he had some issues on the defensive end during this trip, he has the size and athleticism to be at least an adequate defender in the SEC.

For a team that has questions about where they are going to get offense in the halfcourt and whether or not they can space the floor, Herro is a guy that is going to force Cal to play him a lot of minutes.

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QUADE GREEN IS THIS TEAM’S QUINN COOK

I still, to this day, believe that the most important player in Duke’s run to the 2015 national title was Quinn Cook for one, simple reason: A former McDonald’s All-American and all-ACC point guard went into his senior year and gladly accepted a brand-new role playing off the ball. He embraced the idea that he would be the guy that chased around shooters defensively, that spaced the floor offensively and operated as a secondary ball-handler to Tyus Jones.

If Cook doesn’t buy into that role, if he doesn’t sacrifice his shots and the prestige of being “Duke’s starting point guard!” then his leadership falls on deaf ears and the talent on that roster is irrelevant in the big picture.

The scenario here is slightly different — Green is a sophomore, not a senior, and he’s never been an all-SEC point guard — but the impact will likely be the same. Kentucky absolutely needs Quade Green on the floor this year. His playmaking, his shooting, his decision-making. But they are likely going to need him playing off the ball, as the more dynamic Quickley and Hagans will get the first crack at that lead guard role.

He’ll still get his chances — Cook averaged 15.3 points and 2.6 assists as a senior, parlaying that into an NBA career that included a ring as a floor-spacer with the Warriors, and no one thinks Chris Paul isn’t a point guard playing next to James Harden — and as long as he’s cool with those chances coming in a different role this season, he’ll be the key that unlocks Kentucky’s best lineup.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”

NO. 1 LOSSES

North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.

UP NEXT

Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.

UP NEXT

Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.