UK coach John Calipari works the ESPN cameras during his team's Game 2 win in the Bahamas. (Screen shot from ESPNU)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky basketball team is now halfway through its Bahamas preseason trip, so it's not unreasonable to have formed a few (way too early) opinions of the team. My initial thoughts after three blowout wins:
1. THE BALL MOVES. I would list this impression, and the one I include at No. 2, as the most significant early characteristics I've seen. This bunch needs no tweak to get the ball moving on the offensive end. It goes. Julius Randle and James Young were great players, but it's not until they're gone that you realize how often the ball went to one of them and parked itself. I'm not implying that they were selfish guys. They just didn't have the mentality to make a quick move or get the ball to someone else. I've been impressed early that everyone on this team, from veteran to freshman, seems to have that mentality. One through ten, this team has been unselfish, has looked for each other, and I'd bet if you broke down possession, no single guy has dominated the ball, except for the normal possession of point guards.
2. FULL-COURT PRESSURE. When was the last UK team that really pressed start to finish? This team hasn't even really practiced pressure, and is using the press more to bother opponents than to go after steals. Yet even picking up all over the court in a token fashion has yielded dividends for the Wildcats, and I expect it will all season. For starters, it gives the Wildcats a kind of "boom" quality (like Louisville has had in recent years), in which a 10-0 or 12-0 run can come out of nowhere. And with a team with the talent of this UK group, that kind of run can be a knockout punch. The other thing it does is tend to speed up opponents, and the more offensive possessions this UK team creates, the better off it will be. John Calipari has not been a coach who has done a lot of pressing, but I think he'd do well to utilize a press with this team, even if it's primary function is nothing more than to be a nuisance to the other team. This already is going to be a different kind of UK defensive team. Through three games in the Bahamas, the Wildcats have blocked only four shots. Last year's team averaged 6 blocks and 4.7 steals per game. In these three games, UK has blocked just 1.3 shots per game but is averaging 11 steals. And the defense figures to get plenty better.
3. PLATOON. I know Calipari has been using these two squads of five just to get everybody similar minutes and to get a look at all his players, but the results already have been amazing and, say what you want, I think each of these groups of five already has established an identity and way of playing. I don't know what happens when Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles come back, but it's not really a concern. If I'm Calipari, I might consider keeping the platoon system until some compelling reason presents itself not to keep it. The pressure it keeps on opponents, and I'm talking about constant pressure, is pretty amazing, and is readily evident after the first 10 minutes of games. In three games, UK has outscored opponents by 32 in the first halves of its games, and by 52 in the second halves (the breakdown was 12 in the first half and 36 in the second). 4. FRESHMEN. Karl Towns is the most offensively polished big man Calipari has recruited to UK. He's not Anthony Davis, who was freakishly athletic and dominated games defensively. But he has great skills on offense, rebounds well and, probably most important, really seems to pass the ball well for a big man. That's a powerful weapon, especially once he establishes his mid-range jumper. He looks like he could be at home in the high post or low. Tyler Ulis provides a nice change-of-pace from Andrew Harrison, and really appears to relish creating havoc on the defensive end. Devin Booker hasn't shot it well, but leads the team with 7 steals in three games.
5. CALIPARI. He is everywhere. He sits in the top row of bleachers. He works the ESPN camera. He sits with the announcers and talks. I've heard some people say he is showboating by taking himself away from the team even as it romps to blowouts. I tend to think there's sound reasoning behind it. He knows how he operates. If somebody misses a rotation and gives up a layup with his team up 20, Cal is still going to pounce all over him. This is his way of taking a step back, letting the games run their course for what they are -- early exhibitions -- and for not being too overbearing a presence too soon. In general, Calipari has been far more laid back since the end of last season, in some ways out of necessity. He went to Florida to heal from hip replacement surgery. He has done a few interviews during the summer, but not many. In general, he hasn't stirred things up much at all. I think he's realized, if he's going to stay at UK for a while, he's going to need to unplug from time to time. It was a good decision. He appears to feel better -- having more experience back than he has ever had in his time at UK probably doesn't hurt. Regardless, Calipari's different demeanor this season is a subject I'm sure we'll return to before too long.
There's a lot more that can be said for this group. The Harrison twins are the focal point of this team, as they were during last year's NCAA Tournament run, and both are better. Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis are having a good time in their roles. Alex Poythress leads the team in scoring. But we'll save some of those topics for the post-tournament recap.
For Kentucky fans, there's no reason not to be optimistic about this group. They appear to like each other, and have opened play at a very high level. With their current depth, they're impervious to foul trouble, fatigue and perhaps even injury. The challenge for Calipari is to keep them all moving forward, so that nobody looks back on these Bahamas games wistfully.
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Bobby Petrino covered a number of topics in his Monday news conference, including the death of freshman Reggie Bonnafon's father, Saturday's loss at Virginia, his team's offensive struggles, special teams difficulties and practice work ethic, and more. Eric Crawford provides a quick recap.More >>
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