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By LARRY VAUGHT
New Jersey prep standout Karl Towns Jr. got a feel for what Kentucky basketball was like when he was part of the Dominican national team last summer that trained at UK and was coached by John Calipari.
However, he knows he’ll get an even better feel for the UK fans Saturday when he plays in the Red State Blue State Series at Broadbent Arena in Louisville. His St. Joseph’s team will take on Ballard featuring Louisville commit Quentin Snider at 3 p.m. followed by Whitney Young (Ill.) that features Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s top-ranked junior, against Evangelical Christian (Tenn.) and top five sophomore Skal Labassiare.
“I just really can’t wait to play in front of my soon to be home crowd,” Towns, a 7-0 junior said. “I can’t wait to see the turnout and to be in the Kentucky atmosphere. It will be a special moment. My team is very excited to be coming to Kentucky. They can’t wait to see where I will be playing in a couple of years, and we get to play a great team. I had no idea something like this would happen. I thought they were just playing with me when they told me at school we had a game in Kentucky. I can’t wait.”
Kentucky fans likely cannot, either. He is an extraordinary player who felt comfortable playing against NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in an Olympic exhibition game last season. Earlier this season he had a quadruple double — 16 points, 17 rebounds, 11 blocked shots and 11 assists. To put that in perspective, there’s never been a quadruple double at UK and has only been one triple double. In NBA history, there have been only four quadruple doubles.
Towns had another game in January where he had 31 points, 17 rebounds, eight blocks and four assists. After his quadruple double, he came back with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks. Last week he had a game with 20 points, 18 rebounds, 12 blocks and eight assists — and didn’t play in the fourth quarter because his team had such a big lead. His coaches and athletics director even reviewed that game tape to see if he might have had more assists to have made that game another quadruple double.
Towns said the quadruple double was “one of those special moments” he won’t forget.
“It’s something I will probably tell my kids and family about for years. It was kind of surprising and made me realize all the work I’ve put in has paid off,” Towns said.
He announced in early December that he would play at Kentucky and reclassify from the 2015 recruiting class to the 2014 class. He says those decisions have taken a lot of stress off him this season.
“I am not worrying about anything except basketball. I have some flaws in my game, but at the same time they will be strengths in our championship run,” Towns said. “I am putting up good numbers, have pride in myself and am trying to make sure I play well and give my team all I have every game.”
He plans to have that same philosophy against Ballard, one of the top teams in Kentucky, and knows what he hopes UK fans will leave Broadbent Arena saying.
“That I am a very versatile player. I didn’t just go to Kentucky because I am big guy. I am very versatile and can do anything on the court that the coaches ask. People from Kentucky know I can play. I just want to play the game I know how to play and play St. Joe basketball. We win and lose as a team. I want to do best and let Kentucky fans see I always try to do my best,” Towns said.
He’s not sure how much time he’ll have to interact with UK fans, but he wants to meet as many as possible.
“I always enjoy meeting fans. I just hope it happens so I can. think at end of day I will push Coach to do it. I love interacting with fans. When family is not there, the Kentucky fans be there and supporting you. I try to give back to fans all I can,” Towns said.
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Tickets for Saturday’s games are available at http://www.ticketmaster.com and at the box office at the Kentucky Expo Center.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Chicago talent scout Daniel Poneman was the first to post videos of a rising star named Anthony Davis on YouTube and predicted that Davis’ growth spurt after his sophomore season was going to turn him into a future star.
He was right as Davis led Kentucky to a national championship and became the first pick in the NBA draft. Now he’s following another Chicago product, 6-9 junior Cliff Alexander, that is making a dramatic climb in the recruiting rankings much like Davis did.
“The thing I love about Cliff is his competitive spirit and joy for playing basketball,” said Poneman. “In middle school, he was not even playing organized basketball. There was no projected career of greatness. Coach (Mike) Oliver pulled him off the playground and changed his life. I saw him as a freshman and could you see his raw talent. It was scary.
“He was almost a forgotten guy in the 2014 (recruiting) class in Chicago to contending for the No. 1 spot in America. Chicago might be one-two (with him and Jahlil Okafor). He is a hybrid of Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. He attacks relentlessly. He has such a great frame at a young age. In a lot of classes, he would be ranked No. 1. Okafor is out of the world good. I saw (former Ohio State star) Jared Sullinger at this age and Okafor is far ahead of him and taller.
“But the thing I love about Cliff is that he is still creeping up the recruiting rankings and when I first brought it up to him that Okafor is at top of the rankings, he was quick to say, ‘I am coming for him.’ He wants the spotlight and wants that top spot.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari found time while working on a projected monster 2013 recruiting class to offer Alexander a scholarship this summer. Michigan State has been considered the leader for Alexander — just like it has for 2013 Chicago star recruit Jabari Parker.
“A lot of other kids might hide what schools they are leaning to and he has come right out and said it’s Michigan State and Kentucky,” Poneman said. “His profile picture on Twitter is him and (Michigan State coach Tom) Izzo.
“I think he would be a new type player Kentucky has not had because of his personality. He really loves the spotlight. He is natural. He believes in his ability and will talk your ear off and not take himself seriously. I think if Kentucky got him, Kentucky fans would love his personality and electrifying dunks. Put a good team around him, and Kentucky would, and I could see him being one of Kentucky’s all-time favorite players.”
Poneman, 20, has developed a wide network of contacts from high school players to high school coaches, AAU coaches, college recruiters and other scouts since he ventured into this realm at age 14 when he was a high school freshman basketball player. His name first went national in 2007 when he was featured in a Sports Illustrated article and his work has been written about many times since then.
He first went to see Alexander play when he was a freshman and Alexander did not play in the game.
“After the game the whole team was pointing at Cliff and saying he was the one I had to come back and see. He did not say a word. The first time I did see him play, it was immediately apparent he would be a special, special player,” Poneman said. “With Anthony, the first time I saw him he did not score a point. It took a few years before I realized how special he could be. With Cliff, it was clear right away and was just a matter of time before the rest of the nation figured it out.”
Poneman thinks Davis’ success at UK could impact Alexander, but not because both are from Chicago.
“Any player can see what happened with Anthony at Kentucky and that is a big plus,” Poneman said. “I worry about any guy trying to follow Anthony. I feel for Nerlens Noel next year because the bar is set so high. I hear people say he is a better shot blocker than Anthony, which is ridiculous considering Anthony just had the best shot blocking season of any college freshman ever. I think Nerlens is a nice player, but is no way is he Anthony Davis.”
He’s not saying Alexander is the next Davis, either.
“I think Cliff could come in at Kentucky and do great. I am not saying he will be the center piece of a national title team because he still has a long way to go,” Poneman said. “I think he will enjoy recruiting and not take himself too seriously. He is not a kid that will draw out the process. He’s taking all the attention with a grain of salt. He realizes all the big-time schools want him and he’s the kind of kid that when he knows what he wants, he’ll let everybody know. And right now he’s making it clear Kentucky and Michigan State are the teams at the top with him.”
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Follow Poneman on Twitter @swagair.