UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky basketball topples French pro team 81-58

Aaron Harrison prepared to throw down a dunk during the first half of Kentucky's 81-58 win over Champagne Chalon-Reims during the Wildcats' exhibition tour in the Bahamas this past August.
Aaron Harrison prepared to throw down a dunk during the first half of Kentucky's 81-58 win over Champagne Chalon-Reims during the Wildcats' exhibition tour in the Bahamas this past August.

NASSAU, Bahamas — This trip to the Bahamas was billed as Kentucky's talented, but callow players against savvy veterans. Inexperience against toughened professionals. Mostly freshmen and sophomores against — sound the intimidating Wagnerian music — grown men.

Then the games began.

For a second straight day, Kentucky outclassed an opponent expected to provide a test. UK's 81-58 victory over a professional team from France on Monday — like the 25-point rout of reserves from the Puerto Rican National Team Sunday — could have been the typical early-season blowout in Rupp Arena ... if Lexington had palm trees, turquoise ocean lapping a sandy shore and plenty of flesh to feast your eyes upon.

UK Coach John Calipari, who watched the game from the top of the bleachers at The Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium here, tweeted his approval afterward. "Today showed that we are farther along than any team I've had in awhile."

That was saying something considering three Final Fours and the 2012 NCAA Tournament championship in his five previous seasons as Kentucky coach.

"Our numbers are unbelievable," said assistant Kenny Payne, who coached the team and handled post-game news conference duties. "The number of quality players we have is unbelievable. We just have to make sure ... that we don't let the other team control what we try to do. We control them."

The team from France, Champagne Chalons-Reims, controlled the early going. Blessed with several former Division I players, including Tasmin Mitchell of LSU, De'Sean Butler of West Virginia and Darryl Watkins of Syracuse, the pros led 20-12 barely 10 minutes into the game.

"I think it was a telling sign to start this game off (by having) France hit them in the mouth," Payne said. "I thought that was good. I thought we needed that.

"But the telling part was after they hit us in the mouth, we made adjustments. We played more physical. We dictated the pace of the game. And you're not just dictating the pace (against) grown men. You're dictating the pace (against) grown men who play this game for money."

The difference between reactive and proactive changed when Aaron Harrison stole a pass and drove to a dunk. That helped begin a 16-2 run that put Kentucky ahead for good.

"That really picked up the tempo of the game," brother Andrew Harrison said. "... It started to get fun."

Payne called Aaron Harrison's steal and dunk "pivotal." To his eyes, Kentucky was a different team, a much better team, thereafter. The Cats became more than a collection of talent. They went on the attack in what Payne seemed to hint could be a defining moment.

"That was the transition to 'What are we?'" Payne said. "Are we going to be a soft defensive team? Or are we going to be an in-your-face, aggressive, dictate-the-pace, get-in-the-passing lane (team). We don't care who you are. We're getting after you.

"He made that play, which ignited everything for us."

Like the Puerto Ricans on Sunday, the pros from France wilted before waves of aggressive and talented Kentucky players.

"I guess they kind of ran out of gas," Andrew Harrison said in echoing a UK sentiment about the Puerto Ricans. "We go 10 deep, and we are very talented. It will be a fun year."

Butler, who helped West Virginia beat Kentucky in a 2010 Elite Eight game, came away impressed.

"Extremely talented (and) extremely big," he said of the Cats after the game. "Everybody's active, especially the bigs. They're a really big team. I heard (ESPN's Jay) Bilas had them picked to win it. I might have to jump on the bandwagon. They're a really good team, man."

How good remains to be seen. But for Calipari to say the Cats are further along than any of his recent teams suggests a bright future. Payne noted how the 10 days of practice in preparation for the Bahamas trip helped UK get ahead, begin developing a habit of making an extra pass and accept coaching.

"When you get a group of young players, a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, to buy into that, you're talking about a special group when you can add talent, too," Payne said.

Of course, Kentucky romped Sunday and Monday without junior Willie Cauley-Stein and heralded freshman Trey Lyles. That's two more studly players.

When a reporter asked the over-arching question about finding enough playing time for all the talent, Payne busted out laughing.

"That's why you pay John Calipari a whole bunch of money," Payne said with a huge grin across his face. "He'll figure it out."

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