Poythress turning into consistent difference maker off the bench

CHICAGO — John Calipari knew his team would come out the way it did in Tuesday’s game against Michigan State.

“I told the staff,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘Let’s just hope it’s not 15-0 and I’ll bet you it gets to 12.’ ”

Coach Cal said he expected his young players to be discombobulated and nervous to play on such a big stage in front of a nationally televised audience in the United Center in Chicago. What he maybe didn’t expect after his inconsistent freshman season is that sophomore Alex Poythress would step up yet again and calm the Cats down in his role off the bench.

With each passing game, Coach Cal is finding out more and more that Poythress is becoming more consistent and a game changer. After a freshman season that was riddled with poor body language and up-and-down play, Poythress has turned into an unexpected spark plug to start this season.

Alex Poythress is off to a strong start this season because, as Coach Cal has said, he’s defining his role and not trying to do more than he can. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

Poythress scored seven points Tuesday night, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots, a career high. Two of those blocks came early in the first half, which settled the Cats down after the nightmarish start that Calipari feared and predicted. Poythress seemed to calm the team down with his presence and energy.

As Poythress will tell you, he doesn’t care whether he starts or comes off the bench. He’s just playing to his role, which he thinks is playing tough and bringing the team together.

“I just try to play my role, bring energy, get rebounds, get tough rebounds,” Poythress said. “Just try to bring the team together.”

Calipari and his young team learned a lot from their 78-74 loss to Michigan State, but one of the more encouraging lessons was that Poythress is bringing a consistent effort.

“We learned a lot about who’s fighting and who can keep it going,” Poythress said. “When the going gets rough, we just keep going.”

Poythress is turning into one of those fighters.

“I mean, he just was a beast,” Calipari said. “He went after balls, he defended, he blocked shots. I thought Alex was like a difference maker for us.”

Between the inconsistent freshman season and a quiet preseason, Poythress wasn’t pegged to take on the game changer role this year, but he has drastically improved in these first couple of regular-season matchups.

In just three games, Poythress has two games of 10 or more rebounds this year, matching his total from all of last year. He’s averaging 8.7 points and 10.7 rebounds on the year and has just one turnover in 68 minutes of play, the first one coming in Tuesday’s game. For perspective, he had 66 turnovers last season.

His consistency and energy are so improved that Calipari has even been utilizing him as an example to other players. Even Julius Randle, who is averaging 24.0 points and 14.3 rebounds per game, could take a page out of Poythress’ book, Calipari thinks.

During the Northern Kentucky game, after Randle got poked in the eye and had to come out, Poythress subbed in and immediately got an offensive put-back. Following the play, Calipari ran down the bench and told Randle that’s what he needed him to do more often.

Calipari thinks Poythress has made a change because he’s not trying to do too much. He’s playing to his strengths.

“He’s right now building his own confidence,” Calipari said after the Northern Kentucky game. “He’s building his own self-esteem. You know why? He’s not trying to do stuff he can’t do. … Do what you do well.”

Poythress, unexpected or not, is doing a lot of that lately.