As a place to build enthusiasm and optimism for the upcoming season, Paradise Island lived up to its name. Kentucky fans experienced basketball nirvana as they watched the Wildcats manhandle what was touted to be four quality opponents.
Joy for defense
Kentucky did not make defense a priority in its practices leading up to the trip. That made the joyous effort to defend especially rewarding to see for UK coaches.
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“We haven’t talked defense at all through any of the 10 practices . . . ,” assistant coach Tony Barbee said. “We wanted it to be a fun summer.”
Freshmen Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley set a tone with their on-ball defense. Keldon Johnson extended his infectious energy to defending.
Then there were the rim protectors, whose zeal to contest shots was never more noticeable then when Nick Richards blocked a shot by Mega Bemax with two hands.
“These guys, they play the game with a joy,” Barbee said. “It bleeds into all aspects of their game. . . . It’s just a joy they have playing the game, and it’s not just scoring the ball. These guys have been coached before they got here. They’ve been taught the right way. It just makes it easier for us to mold and shape and develop what we want to see out of them.”
With a cautious qualifier, Barbee spoke optimistically about UK’s defensive potential.
“Because of the quickness and length of our guards, and that’s where your defense starts: on the ball,” he said. “It can be one of the best ones we’ve had since I’ve been here. . . . But it’s still too early.”
UK Coach John Calipari said that upon the return home he will turn his attention to defense.
“My focus is going to be on making us the best defensive team,” he said, “because it starts with your point guards, and these guys (Hagans and Quickley) can guard the ball. That’s the biggest thing.
“It means do you have a shot blocker behind those guys? We do. Do you have toughness? We do. How do your wings guard? OK. Need to be better, but they’re OK.”
UK coaches groused about the defense in the opening game against the Bahamas Select Team.
“We were awful the first night,” assistant coach Joel Justus said. “We had 24 straight-line drives. And we showed each one of them that next day in film. And, my goodness, we’ve been better since then, and our guys take tremendous pride in that.”
Overall, UK’s four opponents made 35.5 percent of their shots, and only 20 percent of their three-point attempts (19 of 95).
‘A physical team’
With the international game a more bruising version of basketball, the games tested UK’s mettle. Twice in the first three games, play got a bit testy.
“We’re a physical team,” Johnson said of UK’s fast start against Mega Bemax. “So we wanted to be the ones to throw the first punch.
Salesman of year?
Kudos to associate coach Kenny Payne, UK’s de facto coach of the “bigs.” The games in the Bahamas showed he sold Richards on learning to like being a post player.
“He needed to be convinced,” Payne said. “Nick is talented shooting the ball. He has a really good touch, and at times he wants to be a perimeter jump-shot shooter. But the base and the foundation of who you are as a post player starts around the basket.”
Richards said last season that the NBA trend toward “small ball” made him wonder about being stuck in the low post.
“A lot of it is watching NBA guys and misconstruing what exactly is going on,” Payne said. “These guys may shoot jumpers, but they’re really efficient around the basket.”
Richards was a low-post revelation here. His variety of moves and spirited defense were the product of due diligence.
“We just work on little stuff like hooks, feeling yourself around the basket, just work on little fakes, turnaround jump shots, things like that to make your confidence level go higher,” he said.
Calipari said his wife, Ellen, remarked that Richards did not look like the same player from last season. He suggested NBA scouts said much the same thing.
“The guy they’re amazed with? Nick,” Calipari said. “Oh, they love Keldon. They love Tyler (Herro). They think PJ (Washington) is way better than he was.
“But they’re looking at Nick and saying, ‘Wait a minute.’”
Basketball made easy
After UK routed the opponent from Argentina on Thursday, Barbee spoke of how important the “bigs” will be this coming season.
“We’ve got to establish our inside guys which will open it up even better for guys on the perimeter,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who can really shoot it. When you play inside-out, it makes the game easy for everybody.”
Kentucky has depth. Besides Richards, there’s Washington, Reid Travis and EJ Montgomery.
With the audible groans in reaction to his missed shots, UK fans clearly wanted to encourage Travis. Surely the fans want the graduate transfer to make a telling difference.
It will take time.
“I think he’s learning a new system,” Justus said. “He’s a new guy for us, too. He’s playing with new guys. He’s going to be fine.”
Travis made 15 of 44 field goal attempts in the Bahamas.
Justus noted that UK was playing Travis away from the post more than he had at Stanford.
Time is on Travis’ side. “It’s Aug. 11,” Justus said Saturday. “We’ve got a ways to go.”
Travis acknowledged that he is in a month-by-month process to transition from a power player to someone who relies more on athleticism. “It’s just baby steps to get where I need to be . . . ,” he said of his first month as a UK player. “It’s going to be a totally different monster and different game that I’m going to have once we get into some real games during the season.”
The desire of UK fans to see Travis have success was palpable. He sensed it.
“It really shows, like, how plugged in and how much love and support they have,” Travis said. “Even when I was struggling those (first) couple games, I got nothing but support from the fans to keep my head up. It really shows how intelligent the fan base is.
“They know their basketball. They’re not just standing around here clapping their hands.”
“I think their IQ is something that’s really overlooked,” Travis said of UK’s freshmen, “as far as guys who really know how to play basketball, who can pick up the system. . . .
“It’s not like they’re masking certain things with athleticism. They do have IQ to pick up certain defensive schemes. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve been impressed with.”
Calipari spoke of how quickly the freshmen had learned concepts and executed them in the games.
“Which is making me (say) wow!” he said. “Because most of the stuff was higher level than us. This is the next step of what you’re doing.”
Among the best
Calipari welcomed Johnson’s enthusiastic play and unabashed self-confidence.
“If there’s five better players than him in the country, you’ve got to tell me who they are,” Calpari said. “I don’t care what you read anywhere. I’ve done this a long time, and I know who’s who. And if there are five better than him, tell me who they are.”
Besides Johnson’s high energy, Calipari spoke highly of his competitive approach.
“No coolness,” the UK coach said. “(Other prospects may say) ‘It doesn’t matter where I go. I just want to have fun.’ Well, that ain’t this kid.”
Off the ball
Calipari made it clear Quade Green will not play point guard.
“I want him off the ball,” the UK coach said. “I told him, ‘If you’re on a team with Kelvin in the NBA, Kelvin is the point guard. You ain’t playing point guard. So be this guy and let them all know this kid can really play basketball. He can really score the ball. He’s skilled. (Good at) decision-making. You know what? I want him on my team. He’s doing it, and he looks good doing it.’”
Herro excited fans with his jump-shooting. He might also be UK’s designated shooter on technical fouls after making 15 of 15 free throws.
Herro had the highest scoring average (17.3 ppg).
“I just told him . . . ‘Now you understand, it’s good to play well like you did,’” Calipari said. “‘But now that’s a standard to grow from. Now you’re going to have to go from where you are to grow.’ I said, that’s the downside of it.”
Don’t forget EJ
Lower back pain sidelined Montgomery.
“He’s probably our most skilled big guy,” Calipari said of the freshman. “Shooting the ball. Passing the ball. Dribbling the ball.
“Physically, mentally, that toughness you need, he’s probably behind these other guys. But they’re veterans.”
Montgomery appeared in only one game. Redshirt freshman guard Jemarl Baker sat out all four games with swelling in his knee.
Barbee said that there was a message in the UK players’ insistence to finish Thursday’s game, which was interrupted by a power outage. He hadn’t seen a “more competitive team” in his four seasons on UK’s staff.
“They compete in practice almost to the point of fighting,” Barbee said. “But it’s a good competitiveness. That’s just their spirit.”
Said Calipari: “This is a group that drives each other.”
One reason for optimism sounds obvious, but maybe it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“We’ve assembled a group of guys who absolutely love basketball,” Justus said. “But we’re also finding out that they really enjoy each other. They know when to compete. They know when to have fun. But, my goodness, they love basketball.”
When asked what statistical numbers might hold significance, Calipari cited turnovers and rebounding.
UK averaged only 11.3 turnovers at this still-getting-acquainted stage. “That means you have a skilled team that’s unselfish,” he said.
Coincidentally, UK out-rebounded the four opponents by an average margin of 11.3.
Travis led UK in rebounding with an average of 10.3 rpg. The guy supposedly struggling to change his game averaged a double-double (10.5 ppg).
Calipari is a fan of adversity, especially in the early stages of team development.
“You need adversity,” he said. “It’s the only way you can really learn.”
Winning all four games by an average margin of 26.5 points suggested that Kentucky did not have to deal with much adversity. The Cats trailed for only 88 seconds: by one point for 55 seconds early in the second half against the Bahamas Select Team and by two points for 33 seconds before the first TV timeout against Team Toronto.
But Calipari found the adversity he wanted albeit a mild version. UK missed its first four shots against Team Toronto and didn’t score in the first two minutes. This was in sharp contrast to roaring out of the gate in other games.
And “I was happy Immanuel missed his first three or four shots” against Team Toronto, Calipari said. “I told him, ‘Now, there’s some adversity. How are you going to play?’ He comes back and makes a shot.”
Quickley made two of eight shots, but contributed four assists and on-ball defense.
Team Toronto’s Duane Notice scored 1,409 points for South Carolina and helped lead the Gamecocks to the 2017 Final Four.
When asked to assess this Kentucky team, he said, “They’re very athletic, and I think it’s one of the best Kentucky teams I’ve seen.”
Notice lauded the Cats’ confidence, ability to “play the game right.”
“I told my teammates they’ll be very good in the SEC,” he said. “I think they’ll go far just because of how hard they play. They gave effort. We’re not playing for anything here except for your pride. So the fact that they were able to play hard, and not even have Coach Cal on the bench means a lot to me.”
Individual UK players made an impression.
“I was impressed with No. 5, I don’t know his name,” Notice said of Quickley. “But he was picking me up full-court. . . . No. 14, Herro, a guy I heard his name in the summer. Just to see him and play against him in person, just to see that he lived up to the hype is a pretty good thing.”
What’s not to like?
After the first game, a Nassau-based TV reporter asked Calipari about how the UK players were enjoying the trip.
“They’re loving it. … able to do it in Paradise,” he said. “C’mon. What’s better than that?”
Be back soon?
UK fan David Fields, a former high school coach in Murray, led the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” before Saturday’s game.
Fields attended the games with his wife, Jessica, and three children.
Fields was asked about the expense of the trip, which included $2,000 for tickets for family to attend games.
“We felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation,” he said. “But . . . if they come back (pause) we’d probably come back again.”