With Kentucky’s blowout victory over Team Toronto on Sunday afternoon, the Wildcats headed back to Lexington from the Big Blue Bahamas trip with a perfect 4-0 record.
They pulled off victories in the first two games by a final score of 85-61 in game one against the Bahamas National Team and 91-68 against San Lorenzo de Almagro in game two.
On Saturday, the Wildcats took it a step further by dominating Mega Bemax, Kentucky’s toughest opponent of the trip, by a score of 100-64. They followed it up with their second-largest blowout of the event, defeating Team Toronto by a final score of 93-60.
It’s a trip that absolutely followed in the footsteps of Kentucky’s 2014 adventure to the Bahamas, where they played a total of six games, coming away with victories in five. Their lone loss came against the Dominican Republic National Team, a unit comprised of grown men and numerous professional basketball players. Even in defeat, the Cats looked like juggernauts at the college level.
It was step one of what developed into one of the most historic seasons in college basketball history.
And by the looks of things, at least as shown in the 2018 edition of the Big Blue Bahamas trip, we could be in for yet another special season.
On Friday night, I compared the first two Bahamas games of 2018 to the first three of 2014, where we found out the average margins of victory were just 4.5 points apart, with the current group facing tougher competition. The 2014 team finished the first part of the trip with more highlight-worthy plays, while the 2018 unit dominated, but without much of the flashiness.
If you missed part one, check it out below:
In the latter half of the trip, however, the 2018 Kentucky Wildcats actually pulled away from the 2014 group by a significant margin.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Dominican Republic national team (participated prior to 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Ranked No. 26 in the FIBA World Rankings at the time)
Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, a French first-division professional club team
Game Four: 83-71 victory over the Dominican Republic National Team
After starting the event 3-0, winning each game in dominating fashion, the Cats were delivered their first punch in the mouth. Kentucky held a solid lead for the majority of the first half, but the Dominican team stormed back to make it a game in the second half.
Unfortunately for them, Kentucky’s depth was just too much to overcome, and the Cats rolled by double-digits.
Alex Poythress led UK with 20 points on 8-9 shooting, followed by 12 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and a 10-point, 12-rebound outing from Dakari Johnson.
Game Five: 77-72 victory over Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket
Kentucky’s five-point victory over the French professional squad was easily their most challenging up to this point. Chalons-Reims’ Darryl Watkins pulled off 20 points on 9-10 shooting against a stout Wildcat defense, followed by 11 points on 4-7 shooting from former LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell.
It was yet another taste of just how well-balanced the scoring effort would be for the Cats all season long, with four players finishing in double figures, led by Aaron Harrison’s 15 points and three made three-pointers. Tyler Ulis was second on the team with 12 points on 5-8 shooting.
Chalons-Reims actually led at halftime by a score of 44-43, before Kentucky stormed back in the second half to pull off their fifth consecutive victory of the trip.
Game Six: 63-62 loss to Dominican Republic National Team
Already missing Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, Alex Poythress sat out in the final game of the week, Kentucky’s lone loss of the week.
They had already beaten the Dominican Republic 83-71 earlier in the week, with former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua, who coached the opposition that week, saying his team was “swimming upstream” against a team with so much depth. Comeback efforts were nearly impossible against that group until a Jack Michael Martinez fadeaway jumper with 2.5 seconds left topped the Wildcats by a final score of 63-62.
They actually held an eight-point lead with 4:30 remaining, but hit a wall immediately afterward, failing to score the rest of the game.
It would be the team’s final defeat for roughly eight months.
Ulis led the Cats with 12 points and five assists, followed by Derek Willis and Karl-Anthony Towns with ten points a piece.
Average margin of victory: 5.3 points
As the games grew more difficult, and the fatigue started to kick in, the margins of victory became smaller and smaller. In the final game, the Cats took home their only loss of the trip.
The team’s defense looked stellar, but the offense seemed to sputter a bit, especially with Alex Poythress out of the game against the DR. It was similar to when Poythress tore his ACL midway through the year, as the defense took just a minor step back, while the offense seemed to stall at times.
And then Sam Dekker existed, and it showed just how valuable Poythress was on the team.
Still, though, the Cats competed against elite competition just a few weeks after coming together as a team. At the time we could sense it would be a special group, but no one had any idea just how special it would be.
Mega Bemax, Kentucky’s toughest opponent of the trip, is considered an NBA factory in Serbia. They’ve put several NBA draft picks over the past few years, including Denver star Nikola Jokic. They’re nicknamed “Kentucky of Europe” for good reason.
Team Toronto was seen as Kentucky’s weakest competition of the trip, though they still had several former Division-One players and one NBA player in Andrew Nicholson. They were hand-selected by Canadian guru head coach Roy Rana.
Game Three: 100-64 victory over Mega Bemax
The Cats had this game circled on their calendar the second it was announced. Arguably the most talented opponent they have faced in both Bahamas trips, Kentucky dominated from start to finish.
PJ Washington led the way with 20 points, followed by Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson with 16 points each. All five starters (six players total) finished with at least ten points.
On defense, the Cats forced 14 turnovers and nine steals as a team. They also added six blocks. For a team as talented all-around as Mega Bemax, Kentucky’s overall defensive effort was outstanding.
They came in with a purpose and finished the job, all 40 minutes. If there was a game that terrified the college basketball world, it was game three for the Cats.
Game Four: 93-60 victory over Team Toronto
As mentioned earlier, Toronto was Kentucky’s weakest opponent of the week, and it looks like the Cats knew that was the case going in. They looked extremely sluggish to start with, but eventually got rolling, winning by their second-largest margin of the tour. Five Kentucky players finished in double figures, led by Reid Travis with 19 points and 15 rebounds.
The most impressive aspect of the game, however, was UK’s defensive performance against former first-round NBA pick Andrew Nicholson. The Cats held the big man to just three points on 1-13 shooting, forcing him to ugly and uncomfortable shots.
It also solidified Kentucky’s undefeated Big Blue Bahamas trip, something the 2014 Cats could not accomplish.
Average margin of victory: 34.5 points
The most impressive performances for Kentucky came against San Lorenzo and Mega Bemax, the two middle games. Both were against legitimate professional teams, similar to the 2014 team’s games against Chalons-Reims and the Dominican Republic, though the Cats did it in more dominant fashion this time around.
The 2014 Cats were elite defensively, and it was evident early on. 2018 is likely better on the offensive end of the floor, though it’s difficult to gauge any real comparisons between the two with Cauley-Stein and Lyles out in 2014 and Montgomery and Baker out this summer.
Regardless, it’s not a stretch to say this team is going to be one of the best of the Calipari era, just like we knew with the 2014 group.
It’s going to be a fun, fun year.