The transformation isn’t complete yet – far from it, according to John Calipari – but the strides Alex Poythress made in his first game since receiving some personal attention from Coach Cal were good enough to receive locker-room applause from his teammates following Kentucky’s 90-38 pasting of Eastern Michigan on Wednesday.
“He still has some glitches, but the team gave him a hand after the game,” Calipari said. “He at least played with some energy. You could see it. He ran the floor hard. You could see it. It’s so obvious what we have to do.”
Poythress finished with 16 points and five rebounds – one of five Wildcats in double-figure scoring – in his first game since getting benched in the second half against Louisville.
After playing just three minutes in the second half against the Cardinals, Poythress received personal attention from Coach Cal in the form of individual workouts with his head coach. It’s the same type of treatment Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin have been getting for the last couple of weeks, and now Poythress is going through them every day before practice to unleash a consistent energy level from him.
Poythress has responded so well that he forced his way back into the starting lineup on Wednesday.
“I’m going to tell you, he’s halfway home – half the way there to where we need him,” Calipari said. “It’s still going to be weeks away, maybe a month away. If he makes it, I’m OK if it’s a month away because at the end of the day with him and the other guys, I like my team.”
Poythress admitted Wednesday that he was “a little upset” after sitting the bench down the stretch on Saturday, but he brushed it off for a 23-minute night of improved hustle and consistent play.
“It’s a very big compliment,” Poythress said. “Everybody is a big piece of the puzzle. Not one person is bigger than the other. Everyone’s equally important in this thing that we’re trying to accomplish.”
Although Poythress was the focus of most people’s attention on Wednesday, UK got contributions from a good portion of its main puzzle pieces.
Five Wildcats scored in double figures, led by Kyle Wiltjer’s 17 points. Ryan Harrow pitched in with 15 points, a season-high eight assists and a career-high four steals, and freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein posted his second career double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Kentucky hit 10 3-pointers for the second straight game, pulling away from Eastern Michigan early and pounding them late. As if the 38-14 lead wasn’t enough, the Cats opened the second half with a 15-0 run — a rare good second-half start for Kentucky — and ran away from the Eagles.
Even with the loss to Louisville, UK has looked more like the team that was ranked in the top 10 the last two weeks and less like the team that took a beating at Notre Dame and lost to Baylor earlier in the year.
“Oh, much better,” Coach Cal said of his team’s progress. “But I’m going to tell you, it’s going to be a process. Here’s what I told them after the game: ‘You understand it’s not wins and losses?’ That’s the way I coached them today. We were up 40 and I was on them about taking chances.”
Graduate student Julius Mays, who busted out of a shooting slump with three 3-pointers, even went as far as to say the Cats are starting to click. It’s just in time for UK’s Southeastern Conference opener next week.
“I think we’re starting to play with a swagger that we didn’t have and I think we’re starting to get more confident in each other and trusting each other a lot more, both defensively and offensively,” Mays said. “That’s come with this break that we had where we’ve been able to practice a lot and learning a lot about each other.”
Kentucky’s defense, particularly its full-court pressure, killed Eastern Michigan early. UK forced 12 first-half turnovers that led to 13 points. Seven of those EMU turnovers were steals.
“I thought we defended the whole game,” Calipari said. “That’s what I wanted to see. All I was talking about every time was discipline. Quit taking chances, stay down, we’re not leaving our feet. We do not want to take chances. Let’s just grind this and get better, and I thought we did.”
Wednesday night’s press was by design, Calipari said, but the Cats have certainly employed it more in recent weeks. With a 7-footer helping trap the ball in Cauley-Stein, we could be seeing more of UK’s press over the next few months.
“Willie can guard anybody on the perimeter, so with Willie up and us trapping, it’s hard for them to move the ball,” Harrow said. “And then you’ve got somebody like Archie (Goodwin) and Alex anticipating the steal. It’s real good.”
The 38 points were the fewest UK has given up since surrendering just 35 against Texas Southern on Nov. 24, 2007. Eastern Michigan’s 24.2 percent marked the third time this season UK has held an opponent to a field-goal percentage below 30 percent, and it was the lowest percentage by an opponent since Central Arkansas shot a meager 20.0 percent on Nov. 6, 2007.
“We’ve made major improvements on the defensive end,” Mays said. “It’s what we’ve practiced. That’s what we do most of the time in practice is being competitive on defense. Now we’ve having it carry into the game and we’re making major strides.”
Kentucky’s 52-point margin of victory was its biggest of the season, large enough for Eastern Michigan head coach Rob Murphy to compare UK favorably to top-10 opponents Syracuse and Michigan, who Eastern Michigan has faced this season.
“They’re just as good as any of those teams,” Murphy said. “I like Kentucky because of their size and athleticism. With Ryan Harrow continuing to improve, I think they’ll be a top-10 team and one of the teams that will make a push to the Elite Eight if not make it to the Final Four.”
Coach Cal takes the blame in loss to Louisville