NASSAU, Bahamas — As promised, John Calipari served as a mad scientist in Kentucky’s exhibition opener in the Bahamas, rolling out a two-platoon system to mix and match lineups and experiment with a talent-loaded roster.
The different looks certainly whetted the appetite of Big Blue Nation, and some of UK’s newest pieces definitely wowed. But when it came down to it Sunday, it was two Wildcat veterans who put on the best shows in Kentucky’s 74-49 victory over the Puerto Rico national team reserves, the first of six games in the Bahamas over the next eight days.
Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison, who provided the heroics during last season’s dramatic national championship game run, took on a steadier, more balanced role Sunday with a team-high 15 points, while junior forward Alex Poythress put on a stunning display of athleticism and toughness.
“One of his comments to me, ‘I don’t ever want to evaporate on the court. I want to have a presence on the court whether I’m scoring or not.’ Which defensively means, you saw him pressuring the ball today, going up and playing,” Calipari said of Harrison. “You saw him in pick and rolls. You saw him rebounding the ball. You saw him fighting in there. That’s when you have a presence.”
Poythress had the biggest presence in Sunday’s game though.
Officially, he finished with 10 points, six rebounds and a block, but a few reporters/UK staff members had him for several more rebounds, a couple of them of the sky-high variety. Unofficially, it looked like a big step forward for Poythress heading into an important junior season.
“He was terrific,” Calipari said after the game. “That’s as good as he’s played. And again, you have to understand those are older professional players (he went against).”
Calipari cautioned anyone from assuming that Poythress’ time at the four Sunday meant that’s what he is going forward. He said he used Poythress at power forward to evenly split up his two rotations.
He started the Harrison twins with Devin Booker, Poythress and Dakari Johnson, but the first five split time with the second rotation of Tyler Ulis, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Marcus Lee and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Other than a first-half substitution for Towns when he picked up three quick fouls and some last-minute action for EJ Floreal and Tod Lanter, the two rotations stayed intact throughout the afternoon and played nearly the exact same minutes.
Outside a shaky start for the second five and a slight lull for the starters in the second half, both groups impressed.
“Everybody touched the ball and had opportunities to do things,” Calipari said. “Loved our ball pressure. Loved the fact that we’re passing the ball to each other and making extra passes.”
The second five went on a 10-0 run midway through the first half after a Booker 3 and steal, a layup from Harrison, three straight points from Lee, and a layup by Hawkins. Puerto Rico briefly regained the lead, but the starters closed the half strong with a 10-2 run, which featured a slick crossover dribble and pass from Andrew Harrison (four points, four rebounds and four assists) to Poythress for a dunk.
The second half opened the same way the first ended as the Cats took control of the game. The coaching staff drew up an alley-oop dunk from Towns to Willis to open the half, and then Lee scored back-to-back baskets to take firm control.
Booker and Lee scored nine points apiece, Towns had 10, and Johnson finished with six points and six rebounds to round out the action for the Cats, who return to Kendal G.L Isaacs National Gymnasium at 1 p.m. ET on Monday to play Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, a professional team from France.