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Postmortem: Big Blue Bahamas Tour, Volume 1

The Wildcats finished off the Puerto Rican National Reserves in an impressive win, 74-49.

Jamie Squire

The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats Basketball season officially kicked off today as our Wildcats took on the Puerto Rico national reserves team.  Understandably, the Cats struggled to execute early on and 17 minutes into the game, the score was 28-24 UK.  Over the next 23 minutes of play, however, the Cats outscored Puerto Rico 44-25 to win the game 74-49.

The best part of the day though, is that the score did not make one bit of difference.  It could have been a one point win and BBN would still be happy with the day because we were watching our beloved Cats win on national TV in August.

Coach Calipari ended last season's run with a "tweak" that very nearly resulted in title #9.  He began this pre-season with yet another tweak when he changed the starting lineup at the last minute, replacing Ulis, Towns, and Lee with Poythress, Dakari, and Booker.

My first thought on the game is that there were no significant revelations on the expectations vs. realities of this team.  We are very good, we are very big, we are very deep, and we are very talented.  UK did nothing to make any of that sentiment any different.  If you are a member of BBN, you should have loved what you saw today.  While the Puerto Rican reserves are no world-beaters, they are the same level or higher as a lot of our coming schedule.  Jay Bilas labeled them as a high level Division I caliber team.

If I had to put a description on where the Cats were, I would say they picked up exactly where they left off in the SEC tournament.  For the rest of college basketball, beware.  I recently wrote an article asking what you expect to learn from this tour.  Well, I can mark a few things off my list already.

  • The Harrison's Team: it is clear that this team belongs to Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison.  UK had scored 24 points in the first 17 minutes and then the Twins took over and the energy level from both increased and the team fed off that to finish out the final three minutes of the half scoring 12 points.  It is clear that as they go, we go this year and if today is any indication... that is a very good thing.  Andrew has picked up right where he left off in the post season last year.  You can tell he is more comfortable and even a little more confident in his ability to get in the lane and create for others.

Aaron is going to be a beast this year as well.  There is a smoothness to his game this year and on two occasions he drove the lane and finished above the rim for a dunk.  I am not sure I can recall him doing that last year more than once.  I may be a little biased in my thinking here, but I could see Aaron Harrison having a few Jodi Meeks-like games this year where he simply puts us on his back and we enjoy the ride.  The difference being that during the Meeks year, we needed him to do that to compete.  With Aaron, he will have a plethora of talent around him so it is more likely to be the cherry on top that turns games from competitive to a blowout.  Another aspect of Aaron's game today that really impressed me was his activity level.  He did not stand around, he was very active in cutting, moving, and defensively.  He even blocked a three point attempt and had an on the ball defensive steal, both leading to transition buckets.

  • The Newest Hyphen: we all knew Karl-Anthony Towns was bringing talent to Lexington, what we probably did not expect so early is the fact that he is built like a grown man that is going to allow him to muscle with anybody.  When his time at UK is said and done, he will be one of the more talented big men to don the blue and white.  His basketball IQ was on display with many of the passes he made that led to points.  He also had two very smooth and natural low-post moves that resulted in open baby hook shots.  Towns will be a monster, will play significant minutes, and could end up being the difference maker in us getting to #9 this year.  It may be a bit controversial but I honestly think Towns is not only going to fill the void left by Julius Randle, he is going to improve on what we had in Randle last year.
  • The Mighty Mite: Tyler Ulis is just flat out awesome for this team and the importance he will have to this team cannot be overstated.  Jay Bilas was very complimentary of Ulis on multiple occasions and he hit the nail on the head with a few of his Quotes.  Bilas said "most guys look, this guy actually sees."  One of the most impressive things Ulis did today was actually something he did not do.  He had tried to force a pass down low that resulted in a turnover.  Just a few minutes later, he had the chance to try a contested alley-oop to a sprinting Marcus Lee but smartly opted against it.  Ulis was also a fierce on the ball defender all day resulting in several steals, multiple frustrations, and millions of smiles by the BBN.
    One of the things I think we will see from Ulis this year is a lot of taken charges.  It is human nature for officials to base their charge/block calls on size and the effect of the collision.  The fact that Ulis is very fundamentally sound and is under six foot leads me to believe he will get the benefit of the charge call on more occasions than not.  Bilas went on to rave after a behind the head assist to Towns resulting in a dunk, proclaiming, "Tyler Ulis is a 5'9' ball of incentive for big guys to run the floor." If the play brought back memories for UK fans, you are not alone.  For me, it was reminiscent of Travis Ford dishing to Deron Feldhaus on a similar no look over the head assist.

One of the other developments that should make college basketball cringe was Dakari Johnson.  While Dakari may not have gotten one of the many double-doubles he will get this year, he showed off a svelte new build and speed running the floor that you could see him desperately trying to summon last year.  Dakari also showed off a new skill: passing.  On multiple occasions last year, one of the constants for Dakari was that if he got the ball down low, he was taking it up.  On two occasions today, he showed a new vision and impressive instinct.  Once, Devin Booker passed it down low to Dakari with a one on one situation, however, Booker's man got lost and Booker slid to the corner wide open.  Last season's Dakari would have took it up and likely scored or drew a foul, but he saw Booker slide open, he got it to him, and Booker drained it.

The second instance involved Booker as well when he missed a long three and Dakari got the offensive rebound.  Rather than put it right back up or try to power down low, he saw a cutting Booker and hit him for a driving layup.  Just as impressive was Booker on that play, rather than sulk over the missed three he cut to the basket to be in a position to score.  It was actually one of my more favorite plays of the game.

One of the best things I saw in this game was a renewed and positive general overall attitude.  The Cats never sulked, never got down, and never had negative body language.  That is something that was a staple of the 2012 National Title team and something that was one of last years team's worst habits.  I realize it was a summer game and not much on the line, but to see the Twins never sulk, pout, or get frustrated was a breath of fresh air.  There was also a time in the game where Ulis turned the ball over on a poor decision but immediately went on the offensive and created a turnover himself.

Speaking of attitude, Alex Poythress has also picked up right where he left off in our tournament run.  His Azubuike-like spring and glide is a thing of beauty and he plays more like a 7-footer on the boards.  To have that constant Alex Poythress is going to be heaven sent.  It was also nice to see Derek Willis recover from a subpar first half that saw him turn it over a few times and get outhustled for an offensive rebound.  Willis recovered nicely in the second half and had several finishes at the rim, some great hustle plays, and on-point passes.

If there was one thing lacking today, it was a staple of last year's frustrations and they came out early; one of the Puerto Rican teams first few points was a run-out layup.  Bilas pointed out that around 6-8 of the Puerto Rican teams first half points came in the form of uncontested transition points.  There was even an early Andrew Harrison break down on a back door move.  Having said all that, it is August 10th and for those to be the only real negatives is mind blowing.  We should have a mountain of stuff we could be negative about and there really were not any.  Furthermore, if you are getting frustrated with a group of under twenty kids on August 10th, playing against professionals, you need to take a big step back.

In conclusion, today was an awesome day to be a Kentucky fan.  We got to see an extremely early preview of a special team.  The base that Coach Cal set with this team last March is still there and they have five more games against professionals to get even more prepared for November.  This is going to be a very fun ride and I am very excited to have a chance to write about it this season.  I will leave you with this nugget, in the Calipari era Kentucky has only returned greater than 50% of its scoring on three occasions.  The first time they returned 52%, they finished in the elite 8.  The second time was the 2012 National title team that returned 54% of the scoring.  This year we will be returning 59% of the scoring...  Go Cats.

A few notable tweets from the game: