UK Men's Basketball

Does UK have what it takes to win a national title? ESPN analysts weigh in.

Calipari: ‘I’m happy,’ but ‘I’m not intoxicated’ by UK’s play in Bahamas

John Calipari tried to bring perspective to UK’s dominating play in the Bahamas. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)
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John Calipari tried to bring perspective to UK’s dominating play in the Bahamas. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

For ESPN analyst Dan Dakich, a telling moment during Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas came the morning after the Cats defeated the professional team from Serbia called Mega Bemax.

“I think the Serbians thought they were going to be able to, if not intimidate Kentucky, then muck up the game and knock Kentucky back,” Dakich recalled on Thursday. “I thought the exact opposite happened. I thought Kentucky not only stood up to the bully, but knocked the living hell out of the bully.

“The Serbian team wanted nothing to do with those young guys.”

Dakich, who did double duty in the Bahamas by working as a coach in John Calipari’s fantasy camp, remembered the UK coach coming to breakfast the morning after the game against Mega Bemax. The two talked about how well the Kentucky players responded to the rough stuff.

“He was almost giddy because of that,” Dakich said of Calipari.

Dakich likened the Mega Bemax players to Roberto Duran quitting in his second fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. “No mas, man,” Dakich said. “They didn’t want anything to do with Kentucky physically. I thought that was very, very cool.”

Dakich suggested the 100-64 victory over Mega Bemax sent a positive message about Kentucky going into the 2018-19 season. It showed that UK would not be afraid to fight muscle with muscle.

And, “it says to me they’re a together group,” Dakich said. “Because what I watched, everybody joined in the fray almost like a collective effort that ‘we’re not going to get bullied.’”

Dakich and another ESPN analyst on site, Fran Fraschilla, said Kentucky looked like a national championship contender in the four exhibitions.

“This is a Final Four-caliber team,” Fraschilla said.

Added Dakich: “I think they have all the pieces. I don’t think they’ll go undefeated because I think the (Southeastern Conference) is so much better, and I think home courts are so much better than even five years ago.

“I think this is a Final Four, national championship-caliber type team.”

The analysts saw UK as “solid up front” (Fraschilla) while deep and talented in the backcourt (Dakich). The Wildcats played with enthusiasm and effort.

Fraschilla said Kentucky lacks a “transcendent player,” such as Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns. But UK also is not stuck with players who want to appear above the fray.

“John hates cool guys,” Fraschilla said of Calipari.

Fraschilla made a thought-provoking suggestion. Although there is veteran presence in Reid Travis, PJ Washington and Quade Green, freshmen led the way by creating “a certain vibe” on the team.

“A swagger,” Fraschilla said. “I would say a humble swagger.”

To define “humble swagger,” Fraschilla recalled how Tyler Herro passed up the chance for a watch-this breakaway dunk and passed back to the trailing Washington.

Kentucky’s most telling characteristic might be its depth. UK appeared to have multiple options for scoring, rebounding and defending. Fraschilla recalled how any of several Villanova players could be the star of a particular game last season.

“I think that fits Kentucky,” he said. “Because I think what you’re going to see is game by game, on a given night, there’s going to be a new best player.”

What could derail the joyride? Perimeter shooting.

UK’s 2-for-20 shooting from three-point range against the Bahamas Select Team gave pause. Dakich also reminded that UK ranked 340th in three-point baskets (5.3 per game) and No. 136 in three-point shooting accuracy (35.7 percent) last season.

“In modern-day basketball, you’ve got to be able to shoot the ball,” Dakich said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they got tripped up by somebody that makes 15 threes just because it happens in college basketball.”

Even with last season’s SEC co-champions, Tennessee and Auburn, returning several players, Fraschilla advised voters in preseason polls to consider Kentucky for first place on their ballots.

“It’s fashionable not to pick Kentucky No. 1 this year because of the experience in places like Tennessee and Auburn,” he said. “But if Kentucky’s not the best team in the SEC, I’ll be mildly surprised given the level of talent and energy I think they’ll play with. ...

“By mid-January, they could be a juggernaut.”

Quade Green downplayed the meaning of the Kentucky basketball team's blowout victories in the Bahamas. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

Corralled swagger

In the four exhibition games, freshman Tyler Herro made 57.5 percent of his shots (23 of 40) and 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts (eight of 18).

“How about Tyler Herro’s — I’ll use the term — swagger,” John Calipari said. “I grabbed him and said, ‘That’s what I want from you.’ I said, ‘I want you to expect every shot to go in.’”

Calipari then tried to corral the swagger. He does not want any player monopolizing the ball.

“You can’t hold the ball,” Calipari said he told Herro. “Because you’re going to be shooting balls. ... Either let it go or get rid of it or give it to somebody.”

Hustle plays by Ashton Hagans helped set a tone for UK in the Bahamas. Reid Travis explained the source of that spirit. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

Fan a$$i$tance

A $100 price for a ticket to a game in the Bahamas might seem expensive. But UK Deputy Director of Athletics DeWayne Peevy said the money gave fans a chance to contribute to team success. It enabled UK to cast a wider net for competitive opponents. UK paid for the opponents’ travel, hotel and meals.

The better teams from Serbia, Argentina and Canada meant a better test for the Cats, thus a better first appraisal of the UK team.

Of the fans paying $100 per ticket per game, Peevy said, “This is their small part of playing a small role in trying to get us back to the Final Four and winning a ninth national championship. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Keldon Johnson talks trash a lot. He used body language to communicate to Serbia-based opponent. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

High scoring?

After his team averaged 92.3 points per game in the Bahamas, John Calipari said Kentucky would be highly capable on offense next season.

“We’re not going to average 100 points a game,” he said. “But I think this team will probably average more than any team I’ve coached.”

Calipari’s highest-scoring UK team (2016-17) averaged 84.9 points.

As in previous seasons, Calipari said he expected opponents to try slow the pace, shorten games and make UK execute in the half-court.

Calipari described the opposition’s likely thought process as “We can’t play you in the 90s; (so) they’re going to kill us.”

Opponents will want the point total to be in the 60s, he said.

“Good,” Calipari said. “You get 60 and we’ll get 80, and we’ll both be happy.”

PJ Washington said the competitive spirit is different this season for Kentucky. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

Requited love

Each time Reid Travis touched the ball in the Bahamas, the fans’ wish for him to do well was palpable.

“I’m not quite sure why they’re drawn to me,” he said. “I try to take time and reciprocate a lot of the love, and just show my character. ...

“They accept me with open arms, and I really do love it.”

Not so powerful

The Bahamas Select Team’s assistant coach, Wayde Watson, touted two of the high school age players as possibly someday adding to the nation’s reputation for producing NBA talent.

“For some strange reason, every five or 10 years, the Bahamas produce an NBA player,” Watson said. This history includes DeAndre Ayton, Buddy Hield and Mychal Thompson, which moved Watson to label the Bahamas as a “powerful piece of rock.”

Watson suggested Samuel Hunter could be another Ayton. Hunter scored four points, grabbed one rebound and made two of nine shots in just under 14 minutes against Kentucky.

Point guard Dominique Bridgewater was one of the more promising players in the Caribbean, Watson said. “Nice if Kentucky can give him a really serious look,” he said.

Bridgewater, who was plenty quick, appeared to be trying too hard to impress in the game against Kentucky. He missed all seven of his shots, scored two points, got credit for one assist and committed four turnovers in 14-plus minutes.

Food for thought

Assistant Coach Joel Justus explained why UK helps facilitate player improvement (and maybe he also used the occasion to market UK’s recruiting pitch).

“This group is in the gym all the time,” he said of current players. “That’s one of the best things about coming to Kentucky. Your facility is (open) 24 hours and it’s right next to where you live. You get a chef who cooks you breakfast in the morning and a great meal for lunch and then a tremendous meal for dinner. And then you can take about 50 steps and get better.”

Happy birthday

To James Young. He turned 23 on Thursday. ... To Archie Goodwin. He turned 24 on Friday. ... To Christian Laettner. He turned 49 on Friday. ... To Willie Cauley-Stein. He turned 25 on Saturday. ... To Kenny Walker. He turned 54 on Saturday. ... To former Florida Coach Lon Kruger. He turns 66 on Sunday (today). ... To former Indiana star Quinn Buckner. He turns 64 on Monday. ... To Jodie Meeks. He turns 31 on Tuesday. ... To Todd Tackett. He turns 39 on Wednesday. ... To former Mississippi State Coach Richard Williams. He turns 73 on Wednesday. ... To UK president Eli Capilouto. He turns 69 on Wednesday.