By LARRY VAUGHT
While many were expecting Alex Poythress to be a certain one-and-done player at Kentucky and likely NBA draft lottery pick, the UK freshman said that was never his expectation about his college career.
He says that’s why he would not call his return to Kentucky for a sophomore season a surprise.
“I don’t know if it is a surprise. You don’t just come to college expecting to be here one year,” said Poythress after UK’s season-ending NIT loss to Robert Morris. “You come college to try and do the best you can. If you have an opportunity, then you leave. Nobody wants to have season like this. It was very surprising we didn’t do better. Last year’s team just made it look so good. They made it look so easy. The reality is that it is not. There is so much hard work that you have to put in, so much more you have to put in. You have to come prepared.”
Kentucky announced Tuesday that Poythress will keep doing that at UK, not the NBA like freshman Archie Goodwin is opting to do after one season with the Wildcats.
“I’m really happy that, after talking with his family and evaluating his options, Alex has decided to return for his sophomore season,” Kentucky coach Calipari said in a statement released by UK. “Alex is a great kid with a lot of potential and I’m excited to be able to work with him next year. I believe we have only scratched the surface with Alex, and another season in college will get him closer to reaching his dreams.”
Poythress had his moments, especially early in the season when he began his career by scoring 20 or more points in four straight games — the first time any UK player had done that in four years. He started 30 games and was second n points (11.4) and rebounds (6.2) per game.
Poythress had no problems with what Calipari and his staff did to help him or push him even when he was publicly criticized for a lack of consistent effort that frustrated Calipari and UK fans.
“The coaches did a great job preparing us the best they could every game. We couldn’t ask for more from the coaches,” Poythress said after the Robert Morris game. “They can only do so much for us and they did it and they probably did more than what they should have for us. It just comes back on us and we should have done more.
“People didn’t change, myself included. Coach told us what he wanted and we either did it or we didn’t. That’s on us. He laid it out as perfectly as you can. It comes back on us as players to execute what he wants us to do. What happened this year will be driving us for a long time. It will stay in my mind, stay in the back of my head. It is going to be hard, especially ending the season like this. You just have to regroup and focus, but you don’t forget what it felt like to lose this way.”
Kentucky lost six NBA draft picks — senior Darius Miller, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, and freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague — off the national championship team and had no experienced leader this season.
“Last year was a great team, probably one of the best in the last decade,” Poythress said. “They made it look so easy, easier than it really is. So you come here thinking that, but you don’t realize how hard it’s going to be, how hard teams are going to play against you. How every game is just a tough game.”
“We knew it was going to be a challenge, but I just think we kind of didn’t realize how hard it is. You think about last year’s team that was so good and they had six pros that were all so good and so developed and so skilled. They had a senior, freshman and sophomores and juniors. They had it all and were a complete team. We were not.”
Kentucky’s national championship team had more depth. Was Calipari not able to push the Cats hard enough in practice this year to make them improve?
“No, I think he pushed us in practice. It just falls back on us that we have to push ourselves harder and drive harder. Just keep fighting more. Just get tougher,” Poythress said.
“It starts in the weight room. We are going to be in there every day in the offseason. We have to work on getting stronger and getting our bodies better. We did a great job last summer, but we have to pick it up and go harder. We can’t let this happen again. We have to focus on having a great season next year and if we feel like giving up (in the weight room) we just have to think about what happened this season and push through.”
But it should be easier with six McDonald’s All-Americans on the way. Plus, Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer combined for 949 points, 40 percent of UK’s offense in 2012-13, and 515 rebounds, 41 percent of the team’s total rebounds. Those are far better numbers than what UK went into what turned out to be a NIT season this year.
Now the suspense remains about when Calipari will offer Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins of Madison Central a scholarship — and will take it — and if Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top recruit, will pick UK sometime in mid-May. Of course, Nerlens Noel could come back after his season-ending knee injury, but why turn down being a top five draft pick.
After that, then decisions will be made by Calipari on Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood.
But for those already speculating that UK could win the national title next year, getting Poythress adds firepower and needed experience that can only make the Cats better.