UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: All-SEC ballot places faith in UK returnee as Player of the Year

UK forward Alex Poythress dunked during Big Blue Madness Friday night. Jerry Tipton picked Poythress as his SEC Player of the Year.
UK forward Alex Poythress dunked during Big Blue Madness Friday night. Jerry Tipton picked Poythress as his SEC Player of the Year. Herald-Leader

Unlike Alison Lundergan Grimes, I'm willing to reveal my voting choices. Here's the preseason ballot I submitted to the Southeastern Conference on Friday:

Perhaps the biggest surprise (the only surprise?) came with the choice for Player of the Year: Alex Poythress.

This is treading familiar ground. I put Poythress on my All-SEC ballot last year, then watched his production slip (from 11.2 points per game as a freshman to 5.9) and his minutes diminish (25.8 per game as a freshman to 18.4).

Call it stubbornness, if you will. Call it unshakable faith. Call it being persuaded by insiders of opposing teams last season citing Poythress as Kentucky's star of the future.

His play in the Bahamas made me brave. Poythress led UK in scoring (11.8 per game) even though seven teammates averaged more playing time. He played with purpose and palpable resolve at both ends of the floor. One memory remains vivid: Defenders bouncing off him as he drove from the right wing to a layup against (I think) the Dominican Republic.

Another player from Tennessee, Casey Prather of Florida, emerged as a star last season. The Jackson, Tenn., native never averaged more than 6.2 points in his first three seasons (1.2 and 2.0 points as a freshman and sophomore). But with a talented and experienced cast around him in 2013-14, Prather was the leading scorer (13.8 ppg) on a Florida team that made history (first 18-0 regular-season SEC record).

Poythress can do the same.

Here are my picks for the All-SEC team: Bobby Portis, Arkansas; Jordan Mickey, LSU; Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky; Alex Caruso, Texas A&M, and Poythress.

Coach John Calipari's commitment to play a lot of players will shrink individual statistics, but Poythress and Cauley-Stein will still stand out.

Few would argue if Aaron Harrison and/or Andrew Harrison appeared on an all-league ballot. The same is true of freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles. But you can't vote for five Kentucky players, can you?

Portis might be the league's most physically imposing player. Mickey has game-changing athleticism. Caruso is a personal favorite as a glue-guy.

My SEC order of finish: 1. Kentucky; 2. Florida; 3. Arkansas; 4. Georgia; 5. LSU; 6. Vanderbilt; 7. Missouri; 8. Mississippi; 9. South Carolina; 10. Texas A&M; 11. Auburn; 12. Alabama; 13. Mississippi State; 14. Tennessee.

I want my UK TV

To prepare for the 2014-15 season, Kentucky fan Greg Bowen recently re-watched every UK basketball game from last season. "To get pumped up," he said.

In fact, he said he's recorded and rewatched Kentucky games every year going back to VHS tapes and outdoor antennas.

"I used to have my wife out there twisting the antenna to get the best reception," he said.

Bowen, 57, is a rabid Kentucky fan who has long wrestled with the inconvenience of living in Adairsville, Ga. He called last week to complain about not being able to watch a live telecast of Kentucky's Big Blue Madness in its entirety. "We feel it's our right to see this," he said of UK fans.

Of course, ESPN, which owns the television rights to UK's Madness, offered full live coverage only on its website, ESPN3. That the new SEC Network, which is an ESPN creation, would not air Madness irked Bowen, especially given the expectations for Kentucky this coming season.

"For the season we're all expecting to have, how did they miss this?" he said. "I think it's devastating for the SEC Network. People are not going to like that network if that's how it's going to be."

Rights fees attached to the airing of songs in the show played a role in ESPN's decisions about how to televise Big Blue Madness. ESPN did not have the clearance to televise UK's Madness when certain songs would be played, so the all-sports network was resigned to airing only highlight packages (which deleted segments when the songs were played) on a delayed basis on ESPNU and the SEC Network.

Bowen was unconvinced. Surely, exceptions must be made for an exceptional program like Kentucky.

"There's something to be said for charisma and momentum," he said, "and Kentucky's got it all right now."

Bowen, who grew up near Paducah in Arlington, likened Madness to the birth of a baby. Everybody wants to look through the maternity ward window to look at the new addition to the family.

"They don't understand that college basketball to Kentucky fans isn't just a game to us," he said of ESPN. "It's part of our lives. ... They have no concept of what we really think of Kentucky basketball. It's a year-round conversation."

As if on cue, former UK player Kelenna Azubuike's name came up in conversation the previous night when Bowen and his wife, Carol, had dinner with two other couples, he said. Carol mentioned how she liked watching Azubuike play.

Carol Bowen, who is from Georgia, became a Kentucky fan as part of a bargain with her husband. If he would narrow his sporting interests, she'd also root for Kentucky.

After noting how much sports he had been watching on television, Bowen said, "It got to the point, she said I needed to get my priorities straight."

No. 2?

The coaches' poll made UK the preseason No. 1 team. Athlon did the same. "By a Kentucky mile," the magazine cover said.

But UK is not a unanimous No. 1 pick. The Sporting News made Kentucky No. 2 and Arizona No. 1.

Mike DeCourcy, who is going into his 20th season as TSN's college basketball columnist, explained.

"There isn't any doubt that Kentucky is better equipped to withstand a major injury than any team this season, possibly any team in history," he wrote in an email. "But in college basketball depth tends to impress fans more than its actual worth. Cal acknowledged that when he said in his press conference that if he was trying to take care of himself, he'd play seven guys. So having 12 players who could help any team in college basketball makes practices better, but does it make UK unassailable in games?

"Some of our view of this season was affected by what we saw last year. Arizona was the best team in the country before Brandon Ashley was injured, and he's back. T.J. McConnell struck us as a more reliable point guard, on offense and defense, than Andrew Harrison. They did lose Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, and those are significant players to lose, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be better in many ways this season than Gordon was last. Johnson is replaced by a combination of Stanley Johnson and Gabe York: if Johnson becomes a decent shooter, his presence in the lineup will make Arizona the nation's best defensive team. The offense will improve as Ashley develops and Arizona becomes less reliant on Johnson.

"Arizona has areas to address, but Kentucky does, too. UK needs improvement at point guard. It needs to become a better defensive team. If it uses the two-platoon system, it'll do so without a proven small forward. Those areas aren't going to stop Kentucky from winning nearly every game it plays. We just sided with Arizona as more likely to win six in the NCAA Tournament."

Fairness

UK fan Jeff Mobley tried to add perspective to last Sunday's lead note about ESPNU's recent telecast of Kentucky's practice/NBA Combine. The note took a look into the question of whether critics were right to question the fairness of a two-hour salute to UK.

"My take on it is that ESPN salutes whatever flag is flying highest," Mobley wrote in an email. "It's our Cats today. It will be some other school tomorrow. ... The media used to be all about Duke and North Carolina. Now Kentucky has muscled them out of the way. Sure it's not fair."

Mobley, a lawyer in Nashville, acknowledged his UK bias. "I suffer from an inherited disease: UK basketball addiction," he wrote. "It's a strange disease. You often carry the losses longer than the victories."

A Lexington native, Mobley said he was raised on "the mean streets of Chevy Chase." He received undergraduate and law school degrees from UK.

"My favorite team was Tubby's team that lost to Marquette," he wrote of Tubby Smith's 2002-03 UK team. "What teamwork! Erik Daniels' interior passing!! ... Tubby came so close to more rings and certainly more Final Fours."

Mobley also gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to John Calipari. "Calipari is fantastic," he wrote.

Title or bust?

Marcus Lee would not put a championship-or-bust label on the upcoming Kentucky season. He suggested any season is about more than victories and defeats.

"It's always a good season as you go through it," he said. The improvements a player can make bring satisfaction beyond the scoreboard.

"I'd never call it a bust," Lee said of a season.

Freshman Karl-Anthony Towns noted the importance of preparation regardless of victory or defeat.

Of any talk of an unbeaten record, he said, "I've always been told God always rewards preparation. And I feel if we're just prepared for every game ... , our chances are high. Now, we may not win every one. At least we know we gave all we had. There's nothing wrong with giving everything you had and failing sometimes."

UK and the UK

Lisa J. Millar, the Washington correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Company, was in The Herald-Leader newsroom Monday. She interviewed political reporter Sam Youngman about the Mitch McConnell-Alison Lundergan Grimes Senate race.

Millar said that Australians are keenly interested in U.S. politics. She planned to attend Monday night's McConnell-Grimes debate. Her report on the race will air on an Australian television show titled 7:30 (it airs at 7:30 p.m.) sometime in the next few weeks.

During her two days in Kentucky, the popularity of UK basketball had been impressed upon her, Millar said. This initially confused her. "U-K?" she said she wondered. "The United Kingdom?"

Spell check

Poster-sized trading cards of former UK players decorate the walls of the Joe Craft Center gym used by the men's basketball team. During Thursday's Media Day, one card caught the eye.

The name on the card: DeAndre Liggans (sic). That should be DeAndre Liggins, who played for UK from 2008-09 through 2010-11.

How quickly they forget.

Ex files

Former UK player Ramon Harris watched UK Media Day from near courtside. He said he happened to stop in Lexington while en route to rejoining the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA's Development League.

Other players on the roster this coming season include former Alabama player Tony Mitchell and — believe it or not — former Auburn player Chris Porter. Porter, now 36, finished his Auburn career 14 years ago.

Happy birthday

To Kyle Wiltjer. Now at Gonzaga, he turns 22 Monday. ... To Todd Ziegler. He turned 49 on Thursday. ... To former UK football coach Bill Curry. He turns 72 on Tuesday.

  Comments