Kentucky Sports

What we learned from Kentucky's Big Blue Bahamas trip

Kentucky's Tyler Ulis squared off against the Dominicans in Sunday's game.
Kentucky's Tyler Ulis squared off against the Dominicans in Sunday's game.

With Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas completed, here are some takeaways to ponder with the regular season only three months away:

1. UK will be good. With nine McDonald’s All-Americans, how can UK not be good? “I don’t see anybody who has better personnel.” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said midway through the exhibition series. Ex-Cat Eloy Vargas, who played center for the Dominican Republic National Team that beat Kentucky, saw a national championship contender. “Hopefully, we win the (title) this year,” he said.

2. Although only 5-foot-9, Tyler Ulis stood out among all of UK’s tall timber. He’s quick on his feet and with his mind. He’ll still adapting to the college game. He’ll make mistakes, although 24 assists and 11 turnovers supported Kenny Payne’s contention that Ulis must be free to play on instincts. The pressure he puts on ball handlers, especially with 24,000 in Rupp Arena thirsty for a turnover, will be fun to watch. Ulis can “change the dynamics of our team,” Coach John Calipari said. His full-court hounding makes him a target for screens. But he’s fearless and tough, as the story about standing up to DeMarcus Cousins in a pickup game last year suggests.

3. Stats? Who needs them? Calipari dismissed the importance of any numbers generated by games in the Bahamas. “I didn’t look at any stats,” Calipari said. “. . . I’m watching guys play. I’m watching what we’re doing together. . . . And then when a guy doesn’t compete or doesn’t talk, I’m seeing that. I’m not looking at numbers.” Stat most likely to be irrelevant and forgotten: Devin Booker made only 11 of 32 shots.

4. Kentucky seemed noticeably cohesive, although how do you measure unity of purpose in mid-August? But the Dominican coach, ex-UK assistant Orlando Antigua, knew it when he saw it. “They’re having a lot of fun,” he said, “and they’re in great shape. And they just look like when they are off the court, they’re a family. They look like a family. They move the ball. It’s impressive.” Andrew Harrison credited the blessing of having experienced players. “Now we know how to play together,” he said.

5. To bring up the notion of Kentucky having too many players is to risk ridicule. More is better. Always. “A good problem to have,” Antigua said.

6. UK might be an example of better basketball through better diet. The Cats look slimmer and trimmer and faster. Dakari Johnson described his change of diet as Less carbs, more salads (and) greens.”

7. After victories this season, Kentucky could politely say, Dunk-you-very-much. The Cats threw down numerous dunks, which never failed to draw an appreciative ooh or aah from UK fans in the Bahamas. For some reason, Dakari Johnson simply laid the ball in rather than emphatically dunk. When asked about this old-school approach, he smiled and said (in jest, presumably) “That’s a good point. Maybe I’ll dunk it next time.” He did not.

8. Calipari had noted a downside. A six-game, nine-day trip to the Bahamas would lengthen the season. And, no doubt, Calipari, the assistants, the players and the fans were tired by Sunday and eager to go home. But Bilas saw pluses far outweighing minuses. “Most teams look at these trips as real positive turning points,” he said. It’s a head start on evaluating players and strategic options, plus a means of building team unity. By the start of preseason practice, “they’ll be able to hit the ground running,” Bilas said. “It’s a springboard.”

9. Andrew and Aaron Harrison were not above a serious frown or a slumped shoulder when a call did not go their way. But the issue of bad body language did not resurface.

10. Some UK fans are overheated and not firmly tethered to reality. After Booker hit a step-back shot to put the Cats five points ahead of the pro team from France with four minutes left, a fan could be heard saying in an urgent voice, “Need a stop here!!!” When UK lost to the Dominicans on Sunday, a fan who had been whooping it up after seemingly every basket, said with a tone of disbelief, “Oh, my.” Yet, UK fans were unfailingly cheerful, thoughtful and a welcomed sight in the Atlantis resort’s surreal gaudiness.

12. Every time a fan and/or UK traveling party member was asked, he or she favored Maui over the Bahamas. Coincidentally, a fan wearing a Maui-themed shirt attended one of UK’s games. Matthew May, who is from Long Island, wore a shirt that read, “I survived the road to Hana.” He and his wife, Rachel, were celebrating their 10th anniversary in the Bahamas. He got the T-shirt on their honeymoon on Maui.

13. Nice guys. After speaking to the UK team last week, Bilas said he was struck by how the Cats are a bunch of nice guys. But doesn’t any coach want a few hard-nosed, nasty guys on the team? “Bill Raftery refers to it as you don’t want too many milk drinkers,” Bilas said. “I don’t think it really comes down to whether you’re a good person or a tough guy. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.”

14. The Bahamian national anthem sounded good. It’s got hints of "Oh, Canada" and the English march "Soldiers of the Queen."

15. It’s always sad to be left behind after the circus has left town. Kentucky flew home after Sunday’s game. Earlier in the weekend, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati departed. The college teams still in the Bahamas were Samford, Louisiana Tech, Whitman College and Portland State.

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