By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Just in case anyone still wondered how talented and athletic John Calipari’s team might be this year, the Wildcats put a variety of skills on display — and 19 dunks — Tuesday in the Blue-White Game.
It would be easier to find what there was not to like than point out all the positive signs in this intrasquad scrimmage that drew a Blue-White record crowd of 15,035 fans to see the Blue win 99-71.
As expected — at least by UK fans hoping for a ninth national championship — freshman Julius Randle proved why he could be a special, special player. He had 21 points, eight rebounds and one assist to more than offset five turnovers.
“He’s the most athletic and physical person I have ever seen,” said Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison.
Calipari was most impressed that early in the scrimmage when Randle was not getting the ball, “he just played” and did not let it impact him. Remember UK had a player two years ago named Anthony Davis that had that same mentality.
“Then he started getting it and made shots. He’s really good. He can really pass, too,” Calipari said.
Randle said he was not nervous, but was anxious for the team to have a chance to show what it could do. That included him showing he’s become even better on the perimeter, something Calipari has emphasized.
“That’s something Coach wants me to work on for the next level (NBA),” Randle said. “I am a lot more comfortable out there now. But our practices make you improve. Pretty much what you saw today is how we do in practice. We defended better. We still have a lot of stuff to work on. We’ve got to get better, but we are doing a pretty good job. We are playing unselfish and doing what the coaches ask. We know we have talent. We’ve just got to keep the mindset of working hard.”
But Randle was not the only star when James Young scored 25 points and Aaron Harrison had 19 points — the two combined to go 6-for-9 from 3-point range. Here are some other things that impressed me.
— Less than a minute after he came into the game, freshman center Dakari Johnson dove on the floor for a loose ball. Everyone knew he would throw he weight around in the pain — and he did — but he proved he would be just as reckless on the court.
— During a timeout, Young put his arm around Dominique Hawkins to chat even though they were on opposing teams. That’s the kind of chemistry that was missing most of last season.
— Young hit shots early, but he pulled up on the fast break to feed the ball to Alex Poythress. He finished 11-for-16 shooting.
— Randle and Johnson, who had a game-high 11 rebounds, took turns batting around offensive rebounds, something UK could not do last year. “He’s a big boy and a load down low,” Randle said.
— Andrew Harrison, UK’s point guard, didn’t play the second half because of a knee contusion. But he looked to be enjoying everything he saw and kept connected with teammates. Again, a little thing, but an intangible asset UK did not have from its starting point guard last year.
— Randle, perhaps the most versatile player for his size UK has had, did a cross-over dribble and dunk on Marcus Lee that was superb. Then a few minutes later he pulled off a defensive rebound, drove the length of the floor, faked Lee and dunked. “I liked both of them,” Randle said.
— And there was Derek Willis taking the ball from Randle, throwing a behind-his-back pass and then spotting up and hitting a 3 from the corner. He finished with 21 points. Calipari said he had “no conscious” and just “let it go” while making five of six 3-pointers.
— And even freshman walk-on E.J Floreal, the son of two former Olympians, threw down a dunk — on Randle. The best part was that even their teammates were laughing and enjoying the moment. “They were still giving it to him after the game,” Calipari said.
Calipari kept noting it was a scrimmage in October, not a win to get to the Final Four. But it was obvious he liked a lot about his team.
“I like that we defended without fouling. The officials, especially the SEC official, told me it was the best he had seen. We don’t try to foul any way. I thought it was good,” the UK coach said. “And we are a shot blocking team, so these rules play to what we do.”
Actually, new defensive rules or not, everything about the game should play to what Kentucky does this year because Calipari has a deeper, bigger and more talented team — and the best part for him and the players is that UK should only continue to get better.