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Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress lead Kentucky win


This was going to be the game that an older, more experienced Dominican Republic national team was going to challenge Kentucky.

After three easy wins in the Bahamas, the Cats were coming off two days off and it seemed like it might be natural for the team to have a letdown.

Instead, Kentucky unleashed its depth and size again to overpower the Dominicans83-71 and again seemed to have everybody play well even if the Dominicans did cut into the lead midway of the second half thanks to a zone defense and some slow transition defense by UK.

“This must be fun for John Calipari to watch,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas during the game. “He’s not coaching, but just watching and it has to be fun.”

Kentucky turned a 47-36 halftime lead into a blowout to start the second half with a 9-0 run with the second platoon on the court. Of course, with nine McDonald’s All-Americans on the team, there might not be a second unit but just two starting fives — and that’s without Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles yet cleared to play.

A trimmed down Dakari Johnson had a big first half with five offensive rebounds and eight total boards that impressed Bilas. He finished with 10 points (5-for-7 shooting) and 12 rebounds.

“This is an excellent offensive rebounding team and will be the source of a lot of scoring for Dakari Johnson,” Bilas said. “You have got to be impressed with how Dakari is running the floor. He is doing a really good job switching ends (of the floor) and that was not his strength last year. He has done a great job on the offensive glass, but he is so much more mobile.”

Try way, way more mobile. But he’s also still a strong presence inside.

“Dakari Johnson just muscled (former Wildcat) Eloy Vargas out of the way. Just having him there is huge. If you try to block a shot, the offensive glass is wide open and a guard can’t rotate down and pick him up,” Bilas said. “He has just dominated the offensive glass and it is not like he is playing against high school guys.”

“I loved the way he played,” UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said on the UK Radio Network postgame show. “He is playing great.”

However, perhaps the most impressive thing about the game to me was the continued strong play of Alex Poythress. He was UK’s leading scorer after three games, but he’s always shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years at UK and then seemed to back away. On Friday, he had 13 points by halftime and early in the second half hit his second 3pointer of the game. He also got a hoop when the Dominicans trimmed a big lead to 12 points with about eight minutes to go. He finished with 20 points (8-for-9), five rebounds, two assists and a block.

“This is the way that Alex Poythress needs to play to be an all-SEC player, and he’s capable of that. He’s been dynamic and all over the place. I could not be more impressed with what he is doing here,” Bilas, who spoke to the UK players Wednesday night about handling the hype that will come this year, said. “He is not a great perimeter shooter, but he can make a shot if taken in rhythm and taken with confidence. He can make those shots

“There is noting wrong with Alex Poythress. He has played great basketball here. This is why he can be an all-SEC player this year.”

Poythress has mainly played power forward in the four Bahamas games. When Lyles and Cauley-Stein join the team, he could find himself playing more at small forward and Calipari is hoping he can provide the same size and play there that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did on the 2012 national championship team.

But with the depth Calipari has this year, he can experiment all he wants because he’s got so many options.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 12 points and seven rebounds, Aaron Harrison nine points, Andrew Harrison eight points and six assists, and Andrew Harrison eight points. Tyler Ulis hit two 3-pointers and had seven points.

Here’s just a few other things during the game that Bilas noted that stood out to me:

— On Devin Booker after a 3-pointer: “That is the Devin Booker factor. The quick three in transition. That is a great shot for him. If you get him or Aaron Harrison an open look by passing ahead, that’s a great shot.”

— On Andrew Harrison going inside: “The best guards take on the secondary defender and take on that contact. That is what Andrew Harrison does really well,” Bilas said.

— On Kentucky’s size: “One issue you are going to face against Kentucky is that if a big guy plays every possession hard, he puts himself at risk of fouls and can foul you out. The cumulative effect of the platoon system can really get to you, especially for the bigs. This team has nine guys 6-5 or better in their 10-man rotation and six that are 6-8 or taller and that doesn’t include (Derek) Willis.”

— On Kentucky’s defense: “One area that Kentucky can improve is transition defense, but it’s August. If this team comes out with collective mindset to play defense, it is going to be hard to beat them,” Bilas said.

Payne was not happy with UK’s defense.

“We did not dominate the boards. We’ve got to dictate pace. When we are dictating pace, we are a different team,” he said.

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  1. Larry Pup

    This team will be a big big headache for all teams they face this coming season. They are amazing to watch, and Cal seems so relaxed and enjoying the moment. I also think the coaches on this team right now are very impressive too. My favorite already is Tyler Ulis. He is for real. Alex is ready, and he’s proving it.

  2. King Ghidora

    There are a tremendous number of bright spots on this team but truth be told the intensity wasn’t there as much for this game. I hope they don’t start thinking someone else will carry the slack for you if you play a little slower because “after all there are so man great players”. That could be this team’s only weak point. I think Ulis and Andrew both do a good job of getting the offense going but to be truly dominant they have to work hard on defense. It is very early to worry about these things though. It’s August and the season doesn’t start for months.

    Things that really impressed me were the improvement in An.’s game. He has learned to set defenders up with a fake or two and have them back on their heels wondering where he’s going next. He looks a lot like Rondo does now in that respect except he shoots better than Rajon. He has improved a lot since last year IMO. And of course he has to play well because Tyler is waiting in the shadoes to get his shot at running this team full time. He has a brilliant basketball mind and he’s just a freshman only two months or so out of high school. That’s freaky. Towns has so many things to work with I couldn’t begin to list them all. He has to learn some things but he knows a lot already. He’s ready for prime time as he is but he can become a major talent on this team. I think he’s the guy who could win national POY on this team. Just being the best player on this team says something. Alex could be tht national POY guy too the way he’s playing. He’s all the things we’ve been looking for since he came to UK. He’s shown flashes of brilliance for two years. Now he’s ready to make it a full time thing.

    Then there’s the improvement of Johnson, Willis, and Lee. All 3 look like first rate players to me. Johnson doesn’t even look like the same person. Lee is much stronger to go along with his inhuman jumping ability. And Willis has his entire game going well. Hawkins also looks very good at times.

    This team will made your head spin. I’ve never seen any basketball team this deep with the exception of the original Dream Team. I don’t think this team is as good as the Dream Team of course. No team could be IMO. But this team is devastatingly deep. If Cal uses it right they could wear out every team they play until tournament time. That whole thing of wearing out other teams can come back to bite you in the tournament when players get used to playing full speed for 40 minutes. I think that’s why Cal has gone with a shorter bench at times when we all thought he should use more players. Pitino got the platoon system to work (or close to it) but I can’t think of another example of a team that has won it all that way. Rupp believed in going no more than 7 deep so his best players would be in total game condition when the time came. He did that even with a tremendously deep bench at times. If a starter or key replacement went out someone was ready to step right into their shoes with little drop off in talent but conditioning was another story.

    Whatever this will be one fun year of basketball. They seem to have the team chemistry of the 2012 team too. That’s another thing that really impresses me. It’s classic UK basketball and I love it.

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