By LARRY VAUGHT
Maybe it was the grind of six games in eight days. Maybe it was just being away from Lexington in the sun and fun at the Bahamas. Maybe it was just good play by the Dominican Republic.
Whatever the reason, Kentucky found out Sunday that winning cannot be taken for granted when it let a 59-46 lead midway with 8 minutes, 45 seconds to play to lose 63-62 to a Dominican Republic national team that UK beat on Friday. Jack Martinez hit a 13-foot fall-away jumper in the lane with 2.9 seconds to go.
Still, Kentucky went 5-1 in exhibition play against solid competition and Kentucky coach John Calipari always says that he wants his team to learn from adversity and he wanted to see how his team would handle adversity. On Saturday, the Cats struggled offensively the final four minutes with the only score coming off a Tyler Ulis steal that clinched the win. Sunday is was the offense again that was non-existent the final five minutes as UK did not score after going on top 62-54.
The Cats went with Ulis, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison on the perimeter the final four minutes with Karl-Anthony Towns, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson inside. Alex Poythress went out earlier with an injury and did not return.
“The gas tank went empty and the zone forced them to keep the game on the perimeter. Not good when you are not hitting your shots,” said UK Radio Network analyst Mike Pratt after the game. “This team still has unlimited upside depending on how the pieces fit.”
The pieces seem to fit just fine despite UK being outscored 17-6 over the final eight minutes and the only points coming on two 3-pointers.
“These trips are a great way for teams to get better. Six games in eight days in a really nice setting and they have had fun, but nobody should be fooled. This is not a vacation. This is a business trip for these guys,” SEC Network analyst Jay Bilas said during the game.
“Maybe the most impressive thing of whole trip is the unselfishness of Kentucky. They are a very unselfish and seem to get along very well with each other. Body language has been great. I am really impressed.”
New UK assistant Tony Barbee, the former head coach at Auburn, said “chemistry” was the biggest purpose for the trip during an interview on the SEC Network.
“You want to see the togetherness and this team is so together. These guys truly love each other and when you put that kind of chemistry with this talent, they can be special.”
Agreed. Kentucky can with its size, length and talent that goes 12 players deep be very special. And Calipari, who joked after the game that he had “been packed for two days” to head home, knows that. That’s why he backed off, let his assistants coach the games and he watched from the top of the gym. No need to overcoach this team in August.
So what are some things we learned from this trip:
— Ulis, who had 12 points, can play both ends of the court. He was 7-for-10 from 3-point range going into Sunday’s game and don’t let his two late misses from 3-point range or foul line fool you. He can shoot and score. But he’s devastating on defense and obviously proved he can play 94 feet at a pace faster than anybody else at UK — or on most teams.
— Ulis is the team’s best passer, but freshman center/forward Karl-Anthony Towns is special, too. Only returning point guard Andrew Harrison and Ulis are better passers than Towns, who scored 10 points Sunday, and that also gives UK another dimension this year.
— Both Harrisons are improved and the only body language they had was cheering for teammates. Both seem quicker and better on defense. Andrew is more pass-first and Aaron is better at getting inside and scoring.
— For four games, Poythress was UK’s best player. His play dropped off Saturday and Sunday before he was hurt, but he looked much more comfortable knowing his role.
— Derek Willis, who had 10 points Sunday, and Dominique Hawkins did more than enough to show they do not intend to be discounted this season. Willis’ offensive game looked complete and while his defense could still improve, he has time to do that. Hawkins shot with more confidence —he had seven points and made a 3-pointer Sunday — and his defense and hustle continue to be special.
— As the Dominican showed, teams that want to play with Kentucky likely will play a lot of zone defense. But with Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker to go with UK’s inside strength and improved passing, that should not be a season-long dilemma UK cannot solve.