Not once, not twice but three times during Kentucky’s open practice, Tina Cox leaned over and made the same observation. It was as if she was so moved by what she was seeing that she forgot what she had said only a few moments earlier.
“We’re going to be good,” said Cox, a writer for Cameron Mills’ radio show.
When told that she’d already said that once and then twice, Cox smiled and said, “It’s OK to get excited.”
As first impressions go, Kentucky’s 2018-19 basketball team made a winning one Tuesday. About 300 UK fans came to the Imperial Ballroom in Atlantis to get an up close look at the Wildcats. With 1,405 folding chairs serving as seats, it was impossible not to get a good sense of the team.
Barbara Coleman of Winchester could provide perspective. Coleman, 84, came to UK’s exhibition games here in 2014 and the regular-season rout of Arizona State in 2016. She and her traveling companions, who are dubbed “The Golden Girls,” also attended multiple Maui Invitational tournaments that included Kentucky dating back to the 1990s.
“My first impression is I’m just amazed at the size,” Coleman said of the current Cats. PJ Washington had “chiseled himself” since last season, she said.
UK’s speed in a fast-break drill also amazed Coleman.
When asked if this might be the best Kentucky team she’s seen, Coleman smiled and said, “I feel that way every year. I’m just an optimist, and I feel Kentucky can’t be beat. And if we do lose, it’s a fluke.”
Of course, UK fans closely watched Reid Travis, the graduate transfer from Stanford who is seen as the kind of experienced veteran who can be a productive player and team leader.
“He’s huge,” said David Fields, a former coach at Murray High School. “I didn’t realize he was that big.”
Tony Mills of Lexington applauded the “four-years-and-done program” that Travis adds to the mix.
“Instinctively, he doesn’t make missteps,” Mills said, “and his body is always in the right position.”
With the start of the 2018-19 season still three months away, Coach John Calipari was in got-to-do-better mode. He instructed the players — and entertained the fans — with pointed humor.
When a wayward pass flew into the seats at high velocity, Calipari said, “I would tell all the people, with this team, keep your eye on the ball.”
That drew a laugh.
Of the need for players to talk more, Calipari said, “They’re going to put the mic on you, and they’re going to hear crickets.”
In a more serious tone earlier in the practice, the UK coach made player-to-player communication sound indispensable and vital.
“If you don’t talk, you have no chance,” he told the players. “If you talk, they (the opponents) have no chance.”
Fields, the former high school coach, suggested that a chance is no little thing in the context of the larger, conquer-the-world ethos of Kentucky basketball. He said the fans should have left the ballroom with the reassurance that UK will have this chance in the coming season.
“Kentucky fans — well, most level-headed Kentucky fans — they just want a shot” at a national championship, he said. “We have a chance, definitely, from what I saw. They look pretty good. They look better than what I’ve seen the last couple years.”
When it comes to NBA-bound young players, Kentucky’s first opponent here might be capable of matching up.
Samuel Hunter, a big man who will be a high school senior next season, sounds like a promising player for the Bahamas Select Team. To put Hunter in context, assistant coach Wayde Watson noted the NBA players produced in the islands.
DeAndre Ayton and Mychal Thompson were first overall picks in the 2018 and 1978 NBA drafts, Watson reminded. And Ayton’s 17 points and 18 rebounds led New Providence Storm to a victory over North Carolina here in August 2014.
Other notable basketball players from the Bahamas include Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield and former North Carolina wing Rick Fox.
This basketball history makes the Bahamas a “powerful piece of rock,” Watson said. And Hunter could be the next Ayton, the coach said.
The other notable high school player on the Bahamas Select Team is point guard Dominique Bridgewater. Watson said Bridgewater was “the best junior player in the (Caribbean.).”
An earlier story incorrectly identified UK’s opponent Wednesday as the Bahamas National Team. The opponent is the Bahamas Select Team.
Watson explained the difference. The National Team is made up of professional players who must make the team in tryouts.
The Select Team is made up of college players and “high-level local players,” Watson said.
Kentucky vs. Bahamas Select Team
7 p.m. in Atlantis Imperial Arena in the Bahamas (WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, SEC Network)