UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky’s ‘enforcer’? Idea makes Poythress smile

Alex Poythress, left, slammed down two of his 14 points as No. 1 Kentucky defeated Boston University 82-62 on Tuesday.
Alex Poythress, left, slammed down two of his 14 points as No. 1 Kentucky defeated Boston University 82-62 on Tuesday. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

A self-conscious smile crossed Alex Poythress’s face when a reporter suggested after Tuesday night’s game that he could be Kentucky’s enforcer. He liked the sound of that.

“It’s a nice nickname,” he said in his low key, let’s-not-complicate things manner. “I might trademark it.”

Not that Poythress intended to enforce anything during Kentucky’s 82-62 victory over Boston University. He seemed taken aback by the idea that he has become the man to impose his and UK’s will on an opponent.

“Uh, I mean, I guess,” he said. “I’m just trying to play out there when I’m out there. For real. I’m not really worried about all that enforcing stuff.”

In order for us to be the team we want to be, Poythress is going to have to play a big role.

Skal Labissiere

Such a role for Poythress or any of UK’s players on the front line remains in flux. After the game, Coach John Calipari said he was still pondering the best approach.

Poythress has been the team’s sixth man. But, Calipari said, “I just said, when I went in after (the game), I think he should be starting.”

Perhaps Poythress might start with Marcus Lee along the front line. With this starting lineup, freshmen Skal Labissiere (front line) and Charles Matthews (backcourt) would fill out the rotation as primary substitutes.

“So you got seven,” Calipari said. “There you go. Just figure it out. Is there an eighth man that sneaks in? I’m not seeing it right now, but maybe there is.”

More than once during the early season, Calipari has called for Poythress to make his mark as an elite athlete, not as a bully pushing opponents around. Calipari went so far as to push the magic NBA button in making this point: at the pro level, bullying does not work.

Even Poythress is unsure exactly what the UK coach means. “Honestly, I don’t know ... ,” he said. “I can’t even answer that question.”

Of course, the season is something of an extended rehabilitation process for Poythress, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament last December. Against Boston U., he continued to look more like his old self.

This observation brought a polite expression of gratitude. “Thank you,” he said. Poythress said he simply was trying to be “the athlete I was and just making plays out there.”

Each time a collision sends Poythress to the floor, there’s a momentary pause as fans wait for him to get up.

Not to worry, Poythress said. “I’m used to those falls. I do those in practice all the time.”

Poythress posted a second straight double-double, which was a first for him as a UK player. He had two previous double-doubles. He scored a season-high 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

His seven-of-eight shooting showcased something Calipari has often said: Poythress is a finisher, not a play-maker. Of his seven baskets, five were dunks (four in a six-minute span of the second half that saw Kentucky build a comfortable lead).

“A huge energy boost,” Labissiere called Poythress’s dunks. “In order for us to be the team we want to be, Poythress is going to have to play a big role.”

Coming off the bench and injecting an energy boost is the traditional role of a sixth man. Poythress reminded reporters that such a contribution is not limited solely to the first player off the bench.

“He’s just looking for energy,” Poythress said of Calipari. “He’s looking for energy from all the players whether you start or not. You bring energy, you play.”

During the preseason, Poythress flashed a much-improved jump shot. He made all three of his three-point shots in the exhibitions. In the Blue-White Game, he made one of two shots from beyond the arc.

4The number of times Kentucky has started 5-0 during John Calipari’s seven seasons as coach (2009-10, 2011-12, 2014-15, 2015-16)

With a smile, he cited the torn ACL. The injury prevented him from working on anything but shooting.

Poythress didn’t take a three-point shot against Boston U., leaving him 0-for-3 from beyond the arc this early season.

“I’m just taking what the defense is giving me,” he said. “When teams play zone on us, I’m not going to stand on the perimeter. When they play man-to-man, I’ll get a chance to space out and hit open shots.”

Boston U. tried both zone and man-to-man.

Skal learning shot-blocking

Labissiere blocked three shots, the most he’s rejected since getting four against Albany in the season opener.

“He’s starting to get the hang of blocking shots,” Poythress said, “and, like, his timing is getting better.”

A shot blocker protecting the basket has been a fixture for Kentucky during Calipari’s time as coach. The list of players who’ve filled that role include Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.

“I feel more comfortable doing it,” Labissiere said. “That’s one thing we work on every single day with Coach Kenny Payne.”

Blocking out negativity

Labissiere said he tries to fret less.

“I have some mental stuff I do before games,” he said. “Not worrying about mistakes I make out there. Sometimes I can worry a little bit too much about it, and that will push me back. Sometimes I just have to just let it go and move on to the next play.”

No more blowouts?

In saluting Boston U.’s competitiveness, Poythress said, “Those days are behind us where we’re blowing teams out by 50.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Friday

Kentucky vs. South Florida

When: 5 p.m.

Where: American Airlines Arena in Miami

TV: ESPN

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