Kentucky Sports

Mark Story: If you are old school, you should root hard for Alex Poythress this winter

Kentucky Wildcats forward Alex Poythress (22) greeted the Rupp fans during Big Blue Madness on Friday October 16, 2015 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats forward Alex Poythress (22) greeted the Rupp fans during Big Blue Madness on Friday October 16, 2015 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

If you are from the masochistic school of Kentucky fandom, you perhaps watch over and over the video of last season's Final Four loss to Wisconsin that ruined UK's bid for perfection.

What you see is Wisconsin forwards Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes score the three baskets that sank the 38-0 Cats.

The 6-foot-7 Dekker hit a driving layup that cut Kentucky's 60-56 lead in half with 4:26 left. Then the 6-8 Hayes tied the game on a basket that barely beat the shot clock (or didn't beat it). Finally, Dekker drained a cold-blooded three-pointer from the top of the key to give Wisconsin the lead for good, 63-60.

Making a horrid experience even more painful for UK backers is the Wildcats had the perfect player on their roster to lock down those Badgers forwards. Except Alex Poythress was watching on the Kentucky bench that April night in Lucas Oil Stadium because of the torn ACL that ended his junior season after eight games.

"That was very hard," the 6-8, 230-pound Poythress said last week at UK's media day. "I felt like if I was healthy, I would have done a great job guarding and defending them. I wish I could have played. (It was due to) unfortunate circumstances I couldn't. But you don't want to dwell on the past. You figure out what to do and what the next step is."

For Poythress, the "next step" is a place he never envisioned being. When the McDonald's All-American arrived at UK in 2012-13, he expected to punch his ticket on the John Calipari one-and-done gravy train to the NBA.

Instead, Poythress will have a Kentucky Senior Day.

That will give the Clarksville, Tenn., product a piece of UK basketball history. If my math is right, Calipari has signed 32 players as true freshmen since he became Kentucky coach in 2009.

Some holdover Billy Gillispie signees, think Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and Jon Hood (who spent his entire playing career under Calipari but signed with Billy G.), have had Senior Days under Cal. So have transfers (think Julius Mays, Eloy Vargas etc.) and players who came as walk-ons (think Jarrod Polson, Sam Malone etc.).

Poythress, however, will be the first player Calipari signed as a freshman to hear My Old Kentucky Home in Rupp Arena before the final home game of his senior season.

Yet if his time at Kentucky has not gone the way he expected — and has gone on far longer than he initially intended — Poythress has more than made the most of it. He earned his undergraduate degree in business marketing in just three years. In 2015-16, Poythress will be working toward a master's degree in sports leadership.

Having already been a three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll member, the guy who came to Kentucky hoping to be one-and-done is instead an old-school symbol of what college sports used to be.

"I wouldn't trade this experience for the world," Poythress said of his time at UK. "I've got my degree. I'm working on a master's. Every decision I made (to stay or go), I made on my own. I'm happy with the decisions I've made."

Whether Poythress can produce a Cinderella finish to his UK career, while helping Kentucky compensate for the loss of four front-court players to the 2015 NBA draft, depends on his overcoming the ACL tear in his left knee both physically and mentally.

Calipari last week put Poythress at 75 percent of the way back.

"It takes time," the UK coach said. "Anybody that's had an ACL (injury) will tell you (their) jump is a little off which means their shot is a little off until (they) get back to the rhythm of jumping the same way every time."

For what a healthy Poythress with confidence in his repaired knee could mean, there's another old game video Kentucky fans could study. In UK's rally past Louisville in the 2014 NCAA Tournament round of 16, explosive plays by No. 22 down the stretch were huge.

To get back to that, "you've got to get used to your knee again and trust it," Poythress said.

In the meantime, Alex, now that you are at the ripe old age of 22, do your teammates call you gramps?

"Nah, nobody calls me that," Poythress said with a grin. "I don't feel that old. I might be the oldest on the team, but I'm still close enough to everybody (else's) age."

Kentucky's "Mr. Old School" is not ready to be labeled as Kentucky's "Mr. Old."