UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Poythress faces another challenge with injury

Kentucky forward Alex Poythress arrived at Rupp Arena on crutches tearing an ACL earlier in the week.
Kentucky forward Alex Poythress arrived at Rupp Arena on crutches tearing an ACL earlier in the week. Herald-Leader

With Alex Poythress now sidelined with a season-ending injury, a preseason interview gains poignancy.

At the time, it seemed that Poythress was talking about a hurdle already crossed when he spoke last summer about taking on and defeating challenges. He had withstood the scrutiny and questioning that comes with meeting others' expectations of a Kentucky basketball player with McDonald's All-American credentials. He had arrived as a UK player. Or so it seemed.

Then, on Thursday, Poythress tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and, like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, found himself right back where he started: facing a sizable challenge and needing to persevere.

"Through adversity, when it hits, you just have to get through it," he said in the summer. "Everybody is going to go through adversity. You'll have it every year. It's how you fight through it."

Poythress sounded content. To hear him was to think he had won the fight with adversity and come away a better person.

"That's what makes you a man or not," he said of this fight. "That's what makes or breaks you right there."

Poythress hoped to make 2014-15 his season. A year earlier, he had bristled when a reporter (blush) suggested he might be Robin to Julius Randle's Batman. This season, he wanted to be recognized as the best forward in college basketball.

Now, Poythress will have to wait at least another year to reach that goal, assuming he will choose to return to UK next season. One awkward landing in Thursday's practice snuffed out that goal.

In the preseason, Poythress carried a confident air of expectation.

"Mentally, I feel I'm more prepared, more ready," he said. "Just trying to do what I need to do out there. Physically, I've always been there. But, mentally, I feel that's where I really (improved)."

Poythress looked the part in Kentucky's six exhibition games against pro teams in the Bahamas in August. He led the Cats in scoring (11.8 ppg). He made 27 of 36 shots (75-percent accuracy), while averaging 5.7 rebounds, making six steals and blocking four shots.

In other words, it was a much more active and engaged Poythress than the player who often seemed tentative as a freshman and sophomore.

"I don't know if it's a new Alex," said Al Cooper, who coached Poythress at Northeast High School in Clarksville, Tenn. "I think it's a more dialed-in Alex. He's doing whatever it takes to get on the court and stay on the court.

"I think we saw glimpses of that type of Alex last year in games in the (2014) NCAA. It was like he said, 'OK, I can do that a whole lot more and I need to do it with longer sustained effort."

Poythress was named to the coaches' All-SEC Freshman Team for the 2012-13 season and made the media's All-SEC second team for the 2014-15 season.

If the questioning of the last two seasons hurt, Poythress did not say. Surely, it hurt.

When asked how Poythress took the scrutiny, Cooper said, "Just like any human being." Draw your own conclusions.

"He's a good soldier," Cooper said, "a good teammate."

Cooper described Poythress's approach to this season as defiant and triumphant.

"'I've taken my licks up there,'" Cooper said. "And when I say licks (I mean) criticism.

"It's just time to be Alex."

Sadly, that time will not arrive this season.

Spirit of '96

Former Kentucky All-American Tony Delk, who will have his jersey retired on Feb. 21 (UK plays Auburn), was not conceding anything to the current Cats. For those who consider the 1995-96 Cats the blue standard for excellence, he seemed to concur.

When asked last weekend how the '96 UK team would fare against the 2014-15 Cats, Delk stubbornly refused to say he would be on the winning side. But he left that impression.

Delk noted how the '96 Cats could put multiple shooting threats along the perimeter. "We spread the floor," he said.

And, he added, the '96 Cats liked to get physical.

"We set killer screens," he said.

Then with a smile that would look natural on a shark, Delk added, "I loved to just set a back screen on big guys just to see their necks jerk."

When it was noted that the current Cats could try to overpower the '96 team inside, Delk said, "But your guards are not scoring. 'Bigs' or guards. You can't have your cake and eat it, too."

Oh those refs

As UK's career leader in three-point baskets, Tony Delk qualifies as an expert shooter. So when he said the platoon system didn't help players get into a good shooting rhythm, the observation had credibility.

Delk also agreed with a premise that the referees played a part in UK's 1-for-12 three-point shooting against Texas. Calling 51 fouls (or one every 47 seconds, on average) didn't help. There was no flow nor rhythm in that game.

To play and shoot at an optimum level, "everybody has to have rhythm," Delk said.

Long-distance relationship

There's traveling long distance to UK games. Say, Paducah-to-Lexington distance. Then there's UK fan Tom Slone.

Slone commutes from Dallas to Lexington for every one of UK's weekend home games. He sits in the top row of Section 17 and, of course, roots for the Cats.

Slone, who grew up in the Louisville area, did not attend UK. He went into the Air Force after high school. "Couldn't afford college," he said.

After the Air Force, he began working for Associates First Capital in the Dallas area. When he was transferred to Pittsburgh, he began attending the University of Pittsburgh.

As a retirement gift, the executives at Associates First Capital gave Slone UK tickets. He's been coming to weekend home games since 1999.

Through last weekend, Slone liked what he saw. But he could imagine how the current Cats might have trouble.

"If an opponent holds the ball (and) doesn't run with them, and (the Cats) don't hit, it could be interesting," he said.

Cookie subterfuge

Marcia Stone, a member of the stats crew, recently confessed to aiding and abetting in cookie subterfuge at Kentucky home games.

She brings cookies and bags of candy to Rupp Arena. People (blush) help themselves to the sweets before games.

Stone said she began bringing gum to games. At the beginning (she's been on the stats crew for more than 25 years), she also brought cookies during the holidays. Over the years, she expanded her offering of treats.

John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson were especially keen on sampling the candy and cookies.

Once she discovered that UK coaches frowned on the players not strictly sticking to healthy diets, Stone countered. She made the cookies in about the size of half dollars. The better to fit undisclosed in a player's hand or mouth.

Whiffenpoofs?

Brandon Sherrod hopes to play basketball professionally after college. Yet he voluntarily chose to sit out this season and sing with the Whiffenpoofs, Yale's prestigious a capella group.

Huh?

"I could understand why someone from Kentucky couldn't understand or even fathom" such a decision, Sherrod said. "For some people, it's extremely shocking."

For Sherrod, the Whiffenpoofs (who count Cole Porter among their alumni) represented an opportunity that could not be turned down. So far this year, the group has performed in Idaho, California, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York and Boston.

A trip to every continent except Antarctica is planned for next summer.

Sherrod began playing basketball as a freshman in high school. Prior to that, his weight had ballooned to more than 300 pounds. "Played a lot of video games," he said.

He also sang in his church's children's choir. He played drums, saxophone and piano. "My first love before basketball," he said of music.

When asked if he missed basketball, Sherrod answered quickly.

"Oh, big time," he said. "I was at (Yale's game at) Connecticut. I got extremely nostalgic. I always think of coming back. I will be playing next season."

Making the grade

Brick Oettinger, a longtime recruiting analyst, taught political science at the University of North Carolina for nine years. Of the athletes who took his course, none got an "A" grade, he said.

Oettinger recalled one athlete in particular: Larry Miller, a star for UNC in the 1960s.

"First team All-American," Oettinger said. "Terrific player."

Oettinger called Miller the best student of the athletes who took his political science class.

"The most literate," Oettinger said. "The most articulate.

"Didn't put out quite enough effort to get an 'A,'" he added with a chuckle. "He took a B-plus and was happy."

Rest in peace

In case you missed the obituary, James Mathews Hisle died on Dec. 8. Hisle, 89, was the founder of Engineered Devices Company, best known for the design and construction of the Big Bertha speaker in Rupp Arena.

Hisle was a professional engineer with a master's in engineering from UK and an MBA from Xavier.

Happy birthday

To Kelenna Azubuike. He turns 31 on Tuesday. ... To Deron Feldhaus. He turns 46 on Tuesday. ... To Allen Edwards. He turns 39 on Tuesday. ... To Matthew Mitchell. UK's women's coach turns 44 on Tuesday. ... To Thad Jaracz. He turns 68 on Monday. ... To Adam Chiles. He turns 32 on Tuesday. ... To Jan van Breda Kolff. The former Vandy coach turns 63 on Tuesday. ... To Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson. He turned 55 on Friday. ... To Stan Heath. The former Arkansas coach turns 50 on Wednesday.

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