In the John Calipari Era of Kentucky Wildcats basketball, it is rare we get to celebrate players that he recruited on their senior day. Most of them never make it that far.
And that isn't because they don't want to go to Kentucky or they don't want to graduate from the university, it's because they are genius-level talents in basketball and they have an opportunity to realize their genius at the highest level.
There have been a few John Calipari recruits that were able to partake in senior day celebrations at Rupp Arena, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson both come to mind, but Alex Poythress is different.
Hood and Polson were both viewed as four-year players when they committed to Kentucky. In fact, Polson started his career for the Wildcats as a walk-on.
But Alex is different because when he committed, he was almost surely a one-and-done player.
When Alex committed to John Calipari in 2012, he was the 13th ranked player in the country. A five-star, 6'7 power forward out of Clarksville, Tennessee with a reputation as a scoring machine. He was a McDonald's All-American and played in the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic. He was the top-ranked player in the state and was awarded almost every accolade a high school player could desire.
Poythress came in a season after Kentucky had just won a national championship and witnessed six players enter the NBA draft. The 2012 class included Poythress, Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein, and graduate transfer Julius Mays. Expectations for a Final Four run were sky-high, and why not? John Calipari had been at Kentucky for only three seasons and already had a title and a Final Four under his belt. He hadn't missed yet.
Before the season started, ESPN's Chad Ford projected Alex as the #1 draft pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Kentucky fans salivated at the thought of Poythress and Noel going one and two in the draft, much like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had the year before. It was going to be a magical season once again in Lexington.
The first two games that season were against Maryland and #9 Duke. The 'Cats squeaked by Maryland thanks to the heroics of Jarrod Polson, but then dropped the next game to the Blue Devils 75-68. But at the time it wasn't seen as that big of a deal. After all, Kentucky had a very young team and Alex Poythress put on an absolute show offensively.
Poythress finished that game with 20 points and eight rebounds. He was brilliant in every sense of the word and we were all sure that we would be enjoying Alex for only one season. He followed that game with scoring 20 or more points in three consecutive games; but then threw a three-point clunker in a 64-50 loss at Notre Dame. What seemed like a bump in the road turned into a trend for Alex in his freshman season.
Instead of dominating, Alex at times disappeared. The explosive beast we all saw early on spent too much time hiding in a cave. As the season progressed, the team itself regressed and so did Alex. The death knell occurred in Gainesville in February when Nerlens Noel tore his ACL and was lost for the year. After that, the Wildcats did not make the NCAA tournament and lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. The magic of the 2012 title was gone and the reality hit that John Calipari's fourth recruiting class may have been a bit of a dud.
Alex watched as Noel and Goodwin opted for the NBA. He, along with Willie Cauley-Stein, remained at Kentucky. A new batch of players came, highlighted by Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, and five-star stud Julius Randle.
That season, Alex's minutes dwindled and so did his scoring. He didn't record over 16 points in a single game and only scored double-digits seven times. It was as if he had checked out and decided to let others do the playing.
But it wasn't just Alex. That entire team was a disappointment during the regular season. This was supposed to be the redemption team. This was supposed to be the best recruiting class of all time. But they struggled and limped into the SEC tournament with nine losses.
Then Calipari made his famous tweak, and the Wildcats went toe-to-toe with the seemingly invincible Florida Gators in the SEC title game, losing by only one point. The team had renewed life, and we were soon to find out that so did Alex Poythress.
The 'Cats entered the NCAA tournament that season as an eight seed, which looking back, they were probably the best eight seed of all time. After beating Kansas State in the first round, the 'Cats went on to play the best game in the entire tournament against one seed Wichita State.
The 'Cats hung on to win 78-76. In that game, Poythress played 15 minutes, scored six points, and grabbed two boards.
The next game was in the Sweet Sixteen against the four seed Louisville Cardinals. Louisville was the favorite to win the game and a favorite to reach a third straight Final Four. The Cards held the lead for the majority of the game. Luke Hancock was blistering James Young on offense and Kentucky had no answer for him as he scored 19 points.
Enter Alex Poythress. James Young fouled out and Alex came in the game and completely shut Hancock down in the final stretch.
Alex also made the play that turned the game around when he blocked Russ Smith's shot, and John Calipari knew it.
The Wildcats would go on to win the game 74-69 in large part thanks to Alex and his defense. Kentucky then went on to beat Michigan 75-72 in the Elite Eight and Wisconsin 74-73 in the Final Four, thanks in large part to Aaron Harrison's historic three-point shots. But Alex made his presence felt on defense and hustle in both games and baptized Wisconsin with this monster jam.
The 'Cats would fall short of winning a title when they fall to UConn in the title game. But the next season was the one we all looked forward to. Alex came back along with the Harrison Twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee, and Dakari Johnson. Cal brought in another monster class with Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, and Trey Lyles.
This was the 40-0 season. Kentucky was a behemoth and Alex's athleticism and defense figured to be a large part of that monster. He had evolved from elite scoring recruit to an energy/hustle guy that did the dirty work. He was exactly what this team needed.
But it wasn't meant to be. Alex tore his ACL in practice and was lost for the season. At the time it wasn't seen to be as devastating as it would end up being. Kentucky continued to roll along, going 38-0 into another Final Four once again to face the Wisconsin Badgers. But it wasn't to be this time.
The Wildcats lost 71-64 in a stunner. Big Blue Nation was left thinking, what if Alex had been healthy? Would he have been the X-factor against Wisconsin's Sam Dekker? Dekker, the 6'9 stretch four, scored 16 points against Kentucky and was a player that Cal didn't have an answer on how to defend.
After that season, Alex had a decision to make. He would have his degree in three years, an amazing accomplishment in itself, and he could opt for the draft along with the majority of that team. But his knee was a question mark still. He decided to stay for a fourth year and attend graduate school while again trying to win the championship that has so far eluded him.
Poythress' story at Kentucky has one more chapter to be written. He has one regular season left and two postseasons in which to play. There have been times this season when he has been the brilliant Alex that we saw against Duke his freshman season, like when he scored a career-high 25 points against Alabama.
But he battled another injury, one that caused him to miss five games. Alex probably still questions his body every time he steps on the court. But this is it for him. This is his last stand. Almost everyone he has played with he has watched go on to play in the NBA. But Alex has remained.
Alex still has a chance to do what the others didn't do: win a championship. I wish I could see into the future. I wish I could tell Alex that his time at Kentucky will end with the happiest of conclusions. But there are too many variables to be played out, and if last year taught us anything, nothing is a sure thing in sports.
But there is one thing I can say for sure about Alex Poythress, whether or not he leaves with a ring, he is one of the finest young men to have ever played for Kentucky. He has experienced the highest high and the lowest low. He did it not for himself, but for the name on the front of the jersey. He did it for John Calipari. He did it for his team. He did it for the fans.
That is why I will never criticize Alex Poythress. He never once complained. He never once was surely with his coach or the media. He kept his head down and he continued to play, no matter what was thrown in his way. I have two sons and I would be proud if one or both grew up to be men like Alex Poythress.
Not only has he been an amazing athlete, but he has also been an amazing student. As I mentioned, he graduated last may with a degree in marketing and had a 3.5 GPA. He was named as an SEC honor roll student three times and is a 2016 NCAA Academic All-American.
Thank you, Alex, from the bottom of the collective heart of Big Blue Nation. We are with you all the way to the end of your journey here and beyond.
'Till the Battle is Won.