(AP Photo/James Crisp)
Behind the great play of Alex Poythress, the Cats cruised past Texas A&M tonight by a final score of 68-51, covering both the John Short (10) and Vegas (14) spreads. It’s late, so let’s roll through my five headlines from the game:
1. Alex Poythress owned the night
This was Alex Poythress’ night to shine. The sophomore led scorers with a season-high 16 points and five rebounds. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard John Calipari rave about Alex’s performance during practice and seen the slow build of confidence in games. Tonight, Alex dominated. Gone was the hesitant and frustrating Alex of yesteryear; in his place was a confident player who elevated his team’s play with each dunk, rebound, and free throw. Alex’s progression is reminiscent of Terrence Jones’ in 2012, and shows just how much a second year in Cal’s system can help certain players. If his performance tonight doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will.
When asked about that layup-turned-dunk, Alex said “I just jumped and I guess I didn’t realize how high I was.” Julius Randle told reporters he “couldn’t be more happy” that Poythress’ hard work in practice is paying off. Calipari said that Alex’s performance was more mental than anything: “Mentally, Alex thinks he’s going to kill you. So he is.”
2. Paging Willie Cauley-Stein
On the other side of the mental spectrum, Melancholy Stein returned to Rupp Arena. For the third game in a row, Willie was out of it, scoring only one point and getting one rebound. As a result, he only played nine minutes, opening the door for Dakari Johnson. Yet again, Dakari made the most of the opportunity, putting up six points, seven rebounds, and three blocks in 24 minutes. Cal even started Dakari in Willie’s place in the second half, a shakeup we may see again soon. “Dakari is starting to grow up and he’s owning his performance,” Cal told reporters. If you like your plus/minus stats, you’ll love that the Cats were +22 when Dakari was in the game tonight.
When asked what was wrong with Willie, Cal seemed just as much at a loss as we are:
“I don’t know what’s wrong with Willie, but he’ll be fine,” Cal said. “At the end of the game, I said ‘Look, we’re going at you. You’ve gotta get going here, kid.’ And he turned and fumbled and it didn’t get any better. And he wants to do well. He was doing really well and he backed up a little bit and it’s like a slippery slope. When you back up, and you don’t keep bringing it and all of a sudden, you’re going that other way, this sport is as mental as much as anything else.”
Keep that head up and show off your new ink, Willie.
(The live blog consensus was that’s the tree from The Lion King.)
3. The start was better
Hallelujah, praise the Lord, the Cats actually started a game well. In the first two and a half minutes, the Cats got off to an 11-5 lead, a big improvement over just about every other game they’ve played. A lot of that may have to do with Texas A&M being greatly overmatched, but here at KSR, we like to think it’s because the Cats were looser and especially lively during their pregame dancing routine. Julius Randle was asked about it afterwards, and said that the players discussed the slow starts before the game, and it showed:
“It was very refreshing. We have been getting down in games 12-2, 14-5, and stuff like that. We talked about it and we wanted to get off to a fast start and just have energy from the jump. I think we were a lot better today.”
Randle also said that having fun is “what it’s all about,” and that the players “can’t have the weight of the world on us.” Dance like nobody’s watching, fellas.
4. Andrew had another good game
Aside from Alex’s performance, the most promising thing tonight I saw was Andrew Harrison’s continued improvement. Andrew had eight points, eight rebounds, four assists, and four turnovers tonight, which may not sound that impressive, but the offense moved smoothly under his direction. “I thought Andrew played a pretty heady game, did some good stuff. Didn’t shoot it well, but played pretty good,” Cal said afterwards, but said that he still wants more: “The thing I’m looking for is more energy, more juice. I don’t want anyone to watch him play and say ‘Where’s his energy?’ That should never happen. Never, not once. So, that’s all we’re working on. But it’s not just him, it’s all of these guys. More spirit defensively.”
5. Jimmy Dykes almost jinxed the Cats with his shoulder cam
One of the oddest moments of the night was when Jimmy Dykes did color commentary from under the basket, with an ESPN cameraman filming the action over his shoulder. “Jimmy Cam” was truly bizarre (I thought it was hilarious), and seemed to distract the Cats. While Jimmy kneeled next to the basket, Texas A&M outscored UK 6-2. When he finally went back to his seat, Kentucky went on a 7-0 run. Get ready for some Drew Franklin photoshops tomorrow.
All in all, an easy SEC win for the Cats at home, with what may be a coming-of-age performance from Alex Poythress. As Cal said, there’s still a lot of work to do: “I’m telling you, the upside of where we should be, where we could be, where we need to be…we’re not there. We’re just not.”
The pieces though…they’re getting closer together.