By LARRY VAUGHT
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.