Coach John Calipari puts forth one of the tallest and deepest front lines in college basketball history combined with stellar newcomers in Kentucky's quest for a ninth national championship.
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Size: 6-foot-8, 238 pounds
Hometown: Clarksville, Tenn.
About Poythress: He is the X factor on a team with abundant size and plenty of backcourt players. With his combination of size and athleticism, he presents a matchup problem for opponents. He displayed flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons (the one-hand tip-in dunks against Duke two years ago come to mind). To make Poythress more consistent, John Calipari has stressed that he concentrate on finishing plays rather than making plays. Poythress’s high school coach, Al Cooper, said UK fans will see a more “dialed-in” player this season. Poythress is much too smart to say the wrong thing in interviews. When he chooses, he can be candid and revealing. Poythress says, with some prodding, that there is an NBA player he considers a role model. “I guess you could say Patrick Patterson. That’s one person that comes to mind. But at the end of the day … I’m trying to work on my game (and) trying to do what I can.”
Cal says: “He may be a guy who needs more minutes just to get more comfortable playing because, you know, that’s the biggest thing with him (which) is the comfort level in his game.”
Size: 6-foot-6, 212 pounds
Hometown: Richmond, Texas
About Harrison: You don’t hear much talk anymore about Aaron Harrison being the lesser of the Harrison twins. Averaging 13.7 points, making 35.6 percent of his three-point shots and ranking second on the team with 74 assists as a freshman blew away that perception. Hitting winning three-pointers in three straight NCAA Tournament games gave him a permanent place in UK basketball lore. Improved conditioning and a year’s experience (a team-high average of 32.6 minutes last season) suggest even better play this season. He’s a good soldier who’s willing to explore topics with reporters.
Harrison says UK’s loss to Connecticut in the national championship game has a more lasting effect than his three straight game-winning shots. “Of course, I hate to lose. Losing a game like that really hurt. We’re just going to use it as fuel this year.”
Cal says: “People are saying (the Harrison twins) are not really athletic. Compared to what? Me? What are you talking about?”
Size: 6-foot-6, 210 pounds
Hometown: Richmond, Texas
About Harrison: As a freshman, he might have reacted to adversity with a frown and slumped shoulders. But he was a rock. He kept answering the bell despite the nearly impossible-to-meet standard set by recent John Calipari point guards. And once Calipari “chilled,” to borrow a term from James Young, and stopped harping from the sidelines, Andrew Harrison’s already good play improved significantly (5.4 assists per game in the postseason). A year’s experience should bring even better. He averaged 5.2 assists in the Bahamas while playing 10 fewer minutes per game than last season, on average. He does his media duties with equanimity.
Harrison says it’s “great” being a point guard. “Not only do you have to be better than the player you’re going against, you have to be able to lead your team and make sure they’re all having fun.”
Cal says: “Pretty obvious the questions people had, and the next level had. (The Harrison twins must) prove them wrong. They lost weight. More athletic. Play faster. They’re able to sustain.”
Size: 7-foot-0, 240 pounds
Hometown: Olathe, Kan.
About Cauley-Stein: Highly regarded - but not among the highest regarded - as a high school prospect. Kansas did not get seriously involved in the recruitment. He played football in high school. John Calipari liked to note how he came to the high school and saw Cauley-Stein carrying a tennis racquet. Cauley-Stein serves as an example of the strides a player can make when he concentrates on one sport. He made the All-SEC Freshman Team in 2012-13. His 106 blocks last season tied for second-most among UK players all-time and got him a spot on the All-SEC Defensive Team. Absolutely unafraid to buck convention. He sets the standard for insightful, candid and entertaining interviews.
Cauley-Stein says there are no worries about being behind because the recovery from ankle surgery sidelined him from the exhibition games in the Bahamas. "The only thing I'm behind on is the conditioning. I couldn't run and do stuff like that. Now I don't feel I'm that behind."
Cal says: "The only thing with Willie is he's got to stay in our circle. ... You can never the circle from outside the circle."
Size: 7-foot-0, 255 pounds
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY.
About Johnson: Dakari Johnson seems to be UK’s first option as a low-post scoring presence. Thanks to offseason conditioning, he’s slimmed down and will be a bigger threat to outrun his opponent in transition for easy baskets. In the fast-paced style UK hopes to use, that’s significant. There’s a deep gene pool for basketball in his family. His mother, grandfather, an uncle and a cousin all played on college teams. He is animated on the court, which can inspire his teammates and Rupp Arena crowds. Opposing scouting reports must account for Johnson, which, of course, could be said about a dozen UK players. Easygoing and seemingly willing to participate in the give-and-take with reporters.
Johnson says he likes to lighten the mood. “Here and there, I say a couple of jokes. … I’m just who I am. Even on the court, I like to have a good time. I’ll get fired up and do something.”
Cal says: “Emotionally and every other way, he wasn’t ready (to enter the 2014 NBA Draft). But when someone’s going to draft you, you have to think about it.”
KARL ANTHONY - TOWNSNumber:
Size: 6-foot-11, 250 pounds
Hometown: Piscataway, N.J.
About Towns: He’s perhaps the most versatile of UK’s big men. Productive around the basket. A soft jump shot from the perimeter. His face-the-basket game makes it easy to forget his size. John Calipari coached the Dominican Republic National Team that included Towns as an up-and-coming high school prospect. An 84.6-percent free throw shooter in the Bahamas exhibitions, he should be a fixture in late-game situations. He had a 3.96 grade-point average in high school. He deftly handles reporters’ questions.
Towns says that a 40-0 record is plausible, if not Kentucky’s primary objective. “We don’t really go with the mindset we’ll go 40-0. … If we go 40-0, that’ll be pretty impressive. For now, we’re just focused on being the best players we can be.”
Cal says: “Karl’s way better than I thought when I saw him in high school. … What I’m seeing is a very active player who’s skilled and runs better than I ever thought he’d run.”
Size: 6-foot-6, 206 pounds
Hometown: Grand Rapids, Mich.
About Booker: His father, Melvin Booker, was the Big Eight Conference Player of the Year in 1994. To maximize his basketball potential, Devin Booker moved from Michigan to Mississippi as a 10th-grader to live with his father. Father taught son well. The younger Booker is something of a throwback. He’s a basketball player first. He also has the athleticism to excel at the major college level. He’s more than a shooter — a smooth and confident shooting stroke makes Booker a prime option to bust zone defenses. But he’s also a heady player who can contribute in multiple ways. So friendly in interviews he practically lights up.
Booker says he worked “countless hours” with his father on shooting. “If you have mechanics and confidence, shooting is easy.”
Cal says: “He’s a basketball player. He settled a little too much for jumpers (in the Bahamas). Didn’t dominate as much as he could have. But he was trying to feel it out.”
Size: 5-foot-9, 155 pounds
Hometown: Lima, Ohio.
About Ulis: If he was a YouTube video, he would have gone viral already. And the first regular-season game isn’t until Nov. 14. The David-and-Goliath story line is impossible to resist, so no surprise that his play in the Bahamas captivated UK fans. Big heart and big brain help Ulis compensate for a lack of size in compelling ways. He makes that quick move-it-up-the-floor pass on the fast break routine as well as satisfying to watch. He must be a joy to play with as a teammate. But his in-your-face defense must make him an annoying opponent. He’s approachable in interviews, yet there’s an interesting stand-my-ground self-assurance near the surface.
Ulis says he could not merely accept being told he was too small to play basketball. “Because I love the game. This is what I want to do. So I can’t just defer to what people say. I just have to go out there and do what I know I can do best. And play.”
Cal says: “I told him when he came here, if you don’t plan to be an NBA player, don’t come here. Don’t let me hear all these people say, (Calipari) finally got a four-year point guard. I don’t want to hear that crap, either.”
Size: 6-foot-10, 235 pounds
About Lyles: Trey Lyles is the Austin Powers on this Kentucky team. He is an international man of mystery. Born in Canada (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), he played hockey. When he moved to the United States at 7, hockey gave way to basketball. Arthroscopic surgery kept Lyles sidelined during UK’s exhibition games in the Bahamas. So more than any other UK player, he’s something of an unknown to fans. A McDonald’s All-American and a three-time all-state player in Indiana, he’s an unknown in the sense of wondering just how wonderful a player he will be. Not whether he will be wonderful. Poised and down-to-earth in interviews.
Lyles says he has memories of living in Canada until age 7. “I used to play hockey, and all that stuff up there. … It definitely didn’t carry over. Once I got here, I just really got into basketball.”
Cal says: “He’s got some ‘dog’ in him. Like he’s bringing it. If you come at him, he’s not moving. If he comes at you, he’s coming at you and you’ll know he’s coming at you. Biggest thing is his skill set. He’s a smooth player who can shoot.”
Size: 6-foot-0, 195 pounds
Hometown: Richmond, Ky.
About Hawkins: Don’t be fooled by the big smile, the small size and the yes sir/no sir deference, Dominique Hawkins is as serious as any player about making it to the NBA. Given UK’s roster of nine McDonald’s All-Americans, he initially wondered if he was good enough to contribute. He no longer wonders. His dogged defense helped Kentucky reach the national championship game last April. The next step in his development is to show enough outside shooting ability to keep defenses honest. Anyone who watched him lead Madison Central to the 2013 state championship knows he’s a winner. No interview question yet has caused Hawkins’ smile to dim.
Hawkins says he did not find football all that fulfilling even though he was a star for Madison Central in that sport, too: “The only time I really liked football was when it was game time. During practice, I didn’t like it at all.”
Cal says: “Dominique knows, and he said to me, ‘They have to guard me.’ He’s really worked on being able to make open shots. … If he gets to 7 feet, he’ll make it. If he’s at 17 (feet) and not being guarded, what happens? He doesn’t have to make them all. Just don’t miss them all.”
Size: 6-foot-9, 216 pounds
Hometown: Mt. Washington, Ky.
About Willis: As a Kentucky native, his development commands the attention of UK fans. John Calipari has spoken of Derek Willis as a pleasant surprise. During preseason practices last year, the UK coach compared Willis to Bobby Jones, an NBA and ABA standout of the 1970s and ’80s. The comparison mystified Willis, who turns 20 next June. He’s since learned that Jones was a versatile all-pro forward and now better appreciates what Calipari was saying. Willis did not play much as a freshman, but his perimeter shooting may come in handy against zone defenses. When his dry sense of humor surfaces, you start to grasp why Karl-Anthony Towns says Willis is the funniest player on the team.
Willis says he can fill multiple roles. “They know I can shoot. That’s the thing, I’m tall enough, I can go in there and rebound. I’m not, like, a lock-down defender by any means. But I feel I can guard a person. I can fit in where I can fit in.”
Cal says: “Derek gained 20 pounds. When they’re playing three-on-three (and Andrew Harrison creates a three-point shot for him), Derek is nailing it. (Willis and Dominique Hawkins) deserve to be in some sort of rotation.”
Size: 6-foot-9, 220 pounds
Hometown: Antioch, Calif.
About Lee: He’s the unusual McDonald’s All-American who didn’t come to Kentucky to get on the fast track to the NBA. He’s patient about succeeding before proceeding. He knew he had to get stronger, and he has. He’s gained weight. “A solid 220, finally,” he said. So he can better hold his own physically. He’s athletic, springy and willing to contribute in ways that don’t show up in the box score. Of UK’s multiple options on the front line, he’s a glue guy. His dunks against Michigan had to be a confidence booster. Thoughtful and engaging when speaking with the media.
Lee says he’s thinks about shedding his basketball persona, but understands the celebrity status that comes with being a Kentucky player: “I just kind of want to be Marcus Lee, and not, ‘Oh my God, it’s Marcus Lee!’ I just want it to be, ‘Hey, it’s Marcus Lee.’ But being a basketball player at UK, that just kind of goes away.”
Cal says of Lee’s 43.8-percent free-throw accuracy last season: “I told (Willie Cauley-Stein) and Marcus Lee (and Dakari Johnson), … if you can’t make free throws, you can’t be in the game at the end.”
Size: 6-foot-4, 200 pounds
About Floreal: The son of track-and-field Olympians fits in athletically. His father, who is UK’s track coach, said EJ could be a standout college sprinter right now. EJ prefers basketball. Plus, he speaks almost disdainfully of the idea of shrinking from the challenge of making himself a UK-caliber player. Floreal showed in the Bahamas how willing he is to work to improve. He went through the same daily workouts as Willie Cauley-Stein. Encouraging words from ESPN analyst Jay Bilas strengthened Floreal’s determination to make his basketball dreams come true. Intelligent and agreeable in interviews with a hint of unshakable will.
Floreal says fans would be surprised at the time demands associated with being a UK player. “I don’t think people really know how much time we put in. And I don’t think I was ready for how much time we put in. I had to adjust to that a lot.”
Cal says: “His skill set is not up to these guys, but his athleticism is. So he can go in and guard and rebound and do stuff. He just doesn’t have the skill set that they have.”
Size: 6-foot-2, 190 pounds
About Lanter: He’s the son of former UK player Bo Lanter (1980-82). Full name is Samuel Tod Lanter III. All three Lanters spelled Tod with one ‘D.” He played for Paul Laurence Dunbar. Before arriving at UK, he played one season for Gulf Coast State Community College, where he averaged 2.6 points. He did not get in a game last season. He’s an outdoorsman, who loves to be on a boat on a Kentucky lake. Former teammate Jon Hood liked to tease Lanter about finding any excuse to take off his shirt and show off his physique. In interviews, he’s upbeat and happy-go-lucky.
Lanter says he hasn’t given serious thought to what he might do after his college career ends next spring. “But I’d tell you I’d really like to go out on a high note.”
Cal says: “Tod was important to our team during his first season with us. With limited depth, he became an important player in our practices. He knows what to expect and continues to be a great teammate for our guys.”
Size: 5-foot-9, 155 pounds
Hometown: Dumont, N.J.
About Long: He’s the son of a celebrated high school coach in New Jersey. His father played for Eddie Sutton at Creighton. His two older brothers played college basketball for UNLV and Memphis, respectively. So Brian Long knew more about basketball than most people before he ever set foot in Kentucky. His UK experience represents a graduate degree in hoop-ology. An Academic All-SEC selection in each of his previous three seasons, he no doubt could fill a warehouse with UK basketball know-how. If he writes a memoir someday, it will be a must read. He’s careful about what he says in interviews. Maybe he’s saving material for a book.
Long says the scope of UK basketball took him aback. “It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before. It’s crazy. It’s all over the state. All over the country, really. When you go on the road, there’s a million Kentucky fans. It’s kind of like, from growing up, everybody kind of loves the Yankees. So I try to compare it to that. But it’s bigger and different.”
Cal says: “One of the things I ask from our walk-ons is that they become great teammates. Brian has been the epitome of that for the last three years. He has great work ethic and a mindset to get better every day in practice.”
Size: 5-foot-11, 185 pounds
Hometown: Scituate, Mass.
About Malone: He became an instant fan favorite as a freshman because of his fearless go-for-it forays to the basket. He made three of his first five shots. Injuries and the sheer weight of UK’s ultra successful recruiting have limited Malone to four games (and a total of six-plus minutes) since Dec. 17 of his freshman year. He’s been named to the Academic All-SEC team in each of his three seasons. Several major surgeries have not dimmed his wry sense of humor. The charm of laughing in the face of adversity is difficult to resist. On another team in a different setting, he’d draw reporters like paparazzi.
Malone says he grew up in Massachusetts where college sports are, at best, an afterthought. “It’s all about the pro teams. The way people follow college athletics down here, no one (in Boston) really cares about college. They’ll care a little bit, but it’s all about the professional teams in the Boston area.”
Cal says: “Our fans have seen what Sam can do when he gets in games. He may not possess some of the speed and athleticism that our scholarship guys do, but he knows how to score the basketball. What I love most is he’s a fighter. He could have hung it up after all his knee injuries, but he refuses to give up.”