UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Bench comes through for promising Cats

Kentucky center Dakari Johnson blocked a shot by Texas A&M guard Jordan Green on Tuesday.
Kentucky center Dakari Johnson blocked a shot by Texas A&M guard Jordan Green on Tuesday. Herald Leader

Kentucky beat visiting Texas A&M 68-51 on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena and on the occasion of the 18th game of the season few games have demonstrated the difference between this promising UK team and the one last season that did not fulfill its promise.

For example, sophomore starter Willie Cauley-Stein is struggling. After scoring two points in his last two games, including a big fat goose egg last Saturday against Tennessee, the Kansas native managed just one point and one rebound on Tuesday.

If poor WCS had driven through the ice and snow to Rupp for the game, then no doubt afterward his car would not have started. He had that kind of night.

No matter.

In came Dakari Johnson, the 7-foot freshman, who scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds in 24 minutes. If you believe in that +/- stuff, Johnson finished the night with a +22. John Calipari was so impressed with the Brooklyn native he had Johnson start the second half.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M did a good job on Julius Randle, keeping the forward in check for the most part, at least through the first half and the early minutes of the second.

No matter.

In came junior Alex Poythress, complete with a cape. The Tennessee native scored a season-high 16 points and grabbed five rebounds in 25 minutes on the floor.

More importantly, Poythress scored a dozen points during the first half of the second half — many in spectacular fashion — as Calipari's club put some distance between itself and the Aggies.

"He was dominant," said Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy afterward.

A year ago, if Cauley-Stein was struggling, Calipari didn't have another option. It was sink-or-swim and by the end of the season the Cats had sunk like concrete to the bottom of the pool.

A year ago, Calipari didn't have a Poythress coming off the bench. Instead, he had the then-freshman starting. And when Poy-thress suffered through the ups-and-downs of a rookie season, Calipari had no one to bring in, or at least no one of Poythress' caliber.

"They're a deep team and I think their depth wore us down," Kennedy said. "And they're just bigger and stronger at every position."

For a team that had showed troubling signs of playing to the level of competition, Kentucky took a step forward overall. The fellows out in Vegas installed Kentucky as a 14-point favorite. The Cats won by 17.

They took way too many three-pointers in the first half. Fifteen of their 27 shots came from behind the arc. And Calipari has said over and over and over that this is not the type of team that should shoot 25 three-pointers a game.

"I wasn't happy," said Calipari of the settling for threes over the Texas A&M zone.

Second half, the Cats adjusted. They made just one three-pointer, but they only took six. They made more of an effort to work the ball inside to capitalize on their size advantage.

They also played good defense, holding the Aggies to 37.3 percent shooting from the floor, though Calipari said afterward he believes there is room for improvement. Jamal Jones, who had scored 20 points or more in each of his last three games, was held to eight points.

But let us return to the bench. Jarrod Polson gave the team a first-half jolt of energy, which is what Calipari wants from the senior reserve.

The former West Jessamine star even nailed a three-pointer with 3:08 left in the half to extend Kentucky's lead to double digits at 31-21.

"He's a little more confident than Dominique (Hawkins) right now," said Calipari of his other guard option off the bench. "He should be more confident. He's older."

Surely Cauley-Stein's confidence has taken a bit of dip. The quest now is to get Willie back to being Willie.

"I don't know what's wrong with Willie, but he'll be fine," Calipari said. "When you take a step back, sometimes it becomes a slippery slope."

The difference this year, Calipari has options. And those options are starting to come through.

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