UK Men's Basketball

Big Blue Bahamas: Running, dunking Cats smother Puerto Rico

Kentucky's fans and bench reacted to a Derek Willis dunk during an August exhibition game against Puerto Rico in the Bahamas. Willis, who was used sparingly last season, said he never considered transferring.
Kentucky's fans and bench reacted to a Derek Willis dunk during an August exhibition game against Puerto Rico in the Bahamas. Willis, who was used sparingly last season, said he never considered transferring.

NASSAU, Bahamas — Before Kentucky played the reserves from the Puerto Rican National Team on Tuesday, Coach John Calipari asked all the players to gather at midcourt and pose for a picture. Thereafter, UK poster-ized the Puerto Ricans.

Again and again, a Kentucky player raced down the court in transition and dunked. Or caught a lob and dunked. Or rebounded a missed shot and dunked. Or drove to the basket and dunked (with the notable exception of Andrew Harrison's failed attempt to match his brother Aaron's assault on the rim the day before).

In all, Kentucky players dunked 14 times and amassed, by one media member's count, a whopping 58 points in the paint en route to a smothering 93-57 victory.

"I think that's going to be really important for this team," assistant coach John Robic said of this Big Blue transition blitz. "We have athletes who can run. With size. And we can throw the ball to the rim, and play that way."

Robic, who took a turn directing UK's team as Calipari watched from the bleachers for a second straight day, suggested the full-court devastation could be more finely tuned.

"We have to be a really good defensive team for that to happen," he said before adding, "That's so far down the road. That's not an Aug. 12 thing. That's a November-December type of thing."

For mid-August in the midst of exhibition games in the Bahamas, it's simply a fun thing for players and fans.

"I mean, we're having a blast out there," said Marcus Lee, who led UK with six dunks. "If you see every player out there or sitting on the bench, you'll see them smiling and laughing all the time. We just love our time out here."

Kentucky, now 3-0 in the exhibitions (average margin of victory 28 points), had four different players dunk at least twice. Last week's perception of the trip as a challenging test also got slammed.

"I didn't honestly know what to expect," said Derek Willis, who dunked twice. "I didn't know if it was a thing where too many good players and it just falls apart. But we're all really good guys and no one's really selfish. And I don't get that vibe from anyone. So, like I said, just a bunch of good guys, and we're starting to come together. And we're going to be a great team, I think."

Of the domination around the basket here this week, Robic said, "I think our size shows. I mean, (UK is) a really big team. And it's without Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Trey (Lyles). So I think we have a lot of different weapons."

Willis had his most productive game yet: nine points and six rebounds.

"It's just a thing of I'd say coming out of a shell," he said of this start of his second UK year. "Being more comfortable with the game. I'm just trying to find my niche where I fit in, and I'm starting to get there."

Willis said his contributions are no longer linked solely to scoring.

"When I was a kid, if I wasn't scoring, I was just a one-dimensional (player)," he said. "My mentality was if I'm not scoring, I can't do anything. I'm starting to get to that level where I can rebound. I can defend. You start doing other things to help the game progress."

Lee, who had 14 points and seven rebounds, acknowledged how the trip gives players the chance to impress coaches.

"This is definitely a time for us to experiment and do different things and show the coaches what we have," he said.

Robic noted Lee's improvement, which he attributed to "just confidence." Increased weight and a "direct carryover" from a starburst half against Michigan in the Elite Eight last season also contributed, Robic said.

Lee proudly said he'd gained weight.

"A solid 220, finally," he said. "That's good. ... I feel bigger. I feel more confident throwing my weight around and guarding bigger players."

Like the pro team from France on Monday and from its own experience on Sunday, the Puerto Ricans' resistance dwindled as the game unfolded.

"What we've done for these first three games is wear people down," Robic said.

By contrast, Kentucky seemed to grow stronger as the game continued. Robic agreed with a reporter's premise that a dunk nourishes a player's soul. Fourteen dunks makes for an abundant banquet.

"You see the reaction," Robic said. "It's an exciting play. It's a game-changing play. When you get a run of them consecutively by different players, the neatest thing for coaches is to see the reaction from the bench."

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