NASSAU, Bahamas — The Big Blue Nation is more blue than big here. When Kentucky has played its exhibitions, not even half the bleachers are filled in the estimably named but truly modest setting known as The Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium (old-timers say UK's Alumni Gym had a similar seating capacity of about 2,000).
But what crowd there is for the games is nowhere in sight when another form of action takes place. Almost all of the some 600 UK fans here are still across the bridge in Paradise Island when Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles do their basketball duty each day.
Before their UK teammates and even Coach John Calipari arrive, Cauley-Stein and Lyles go through drills led by assistants and watched only by ESPN's behind-the-camera staffers, a few media types and confirmed basketball junkies.
Barry "Slice" Rohrssen, who directed the UK team in Saturday's victory over a professional team from France, likened it to a stratified NBA traveling party.
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"They're on the early bus coming over," he said of Cauley-Stein and Lyles. "In the NBA, you have the regular bus and the early bus. And those guys, right now, are on the early bus with Coach (Kenny) Payne, Coach (John) Robic (and Rohrssen)."
Cauley-Stein, the 7-foot junior deep into recovery from off-season ankle surgery, runs and jumps and shoots and dunks. He looks fit. He looks like he could play if Kentucky was involved in games that counted. Usually, he goes through his drills with a teammate like EJ Floreal and Calipari's son, Bradley, who's recovering from anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
Lyles, one of UK's touted freshmen, is the lone player at the other basket and noticeably more stationary as he works to overcome what he vaguely termed a "leg injury." He practices free throws or catch-and-shoot jumpers. He'll also dribble a ball in each hand, tossing one then the other to an assistant coach, who returns the balls with soft tosses.
"That's our game," Cauley-Stein said of these workouts. "When I come over in the morning, that's my game. Since I can't play, like, I go into a 'that's-my-game.' That's all that is."
Cauley-Stein said he expected to return to the "regular bus," so to speak, as early as this week. He said doctors want to do one more CT scan to make sure his surgical repair is healing properly.
"But they say I'm cleared, now," he said.
Lyles said his return to active status was about two weeks behind Cauley-Stein.
While noting that the two might be "chomping at the bit," to resume their basketball careers, Rohrssen suggested that the decision on which bus to ride at this mid-August stage was based on long-term risk-and-benefit concerns. In other words, why rush back?
"I'm sure there is some anxiousness ... ," he said. "You have to do what's best for the athletes. And, right now, what's best for them is to sit this dance out."
With the start of Kentucky's season still about three months away, Cauley-Stein and Lyles have plenty of time to prepare.
Of course, Cauley-Stein will join an already crowded group of "bigs" that include seven players 6-foot-8 or taller. He deferred questions about how he'll fit in to a higher authority: Calipari.
"That's not my job to figure it out," he said. "All I can do is play as hard as I can, and do what I do best and take care of what I can control. And the outcome of that, whoever Coach decides who gets minutes and who comes off the bench and who starts, that's his job. It's not mine."
Cauley-Stein, who came to a post-game news conference wearing a shirt with a "WCS" logo (It's a prototype, he said), endorsed the platoon system Kentucky has used in exhibitions here. Five players substitute for five others on a rotating basis.
"You're fresh," he said. "It's always a fresh wave of guys coming in. It's pretty genius to have, especially when you have, you know, three starting lineups you can put in. It doesn't matter who starts in it because at the end of the day, you're still going to get the same minutes, and you're still going to get the same amount of touches as everybody else. I like it a lot."
Cauley-Stein saw the platoons working in the regular season. "One of Cal's big things is energy," he said. "So if we're going to have energy like that during the season, then you might as well keep it."
Lyles said it was fun, yet difficult to watch his fellow freshmen do well here while he can only sit and wait after his morning drills.
"I'm just doing everything in my capability to get back out there as soon as possible," he said. "... I'm thinking in a couple of weeks, I'll be out there with them and battling."