For the past three weeks, John Calipari has been selling Alex Poythress, as though the coach were some kind of basketball commodities broker. Alex Poythress futures! Buy! Buy!
Only we weren’t buying. We were selling.
We had heard it all before, hadn’t we? From the day Calipari signed him, through last year’s pre-season buildup, only to see the guy who had fashioned four straight double-doubles during the first few weeks of the season all but disappear by tournament time.
An infusion of raw, young talent this season had relegated Poythress to the role of 6th Man – a super sub, if you will. And again, during the first few games he showed flashes of brilliant athleticism, only to retreat to his seat next to the court for interminably long stretches.
But shortly before Christmas, his coach began to talk him up. He’s practicing SO well, Calipari would say. Buy Alex Poythress!
And, sure enough, Wednesday night in Rupp Arena, Poythress helped make Mississippi State go bye-bye. The sophomore played just 22 minutes but brought a spark to a team that sorely needed it, falling behind early to an under-manned, over-matched MSU ballclub.
Poythress made the most of his time, scoring 12 points, grabbing four rebounds and blocking three shots. He was five-of-six from the floor which isn’t surprising, given that all five of his field goals were dunks, including one that came in the closing seconds of the first half, providing a preview of things to come.
Poythress made himself a target whenever he was on the floor in the second half, running the floor in transition, roaming the baseline when the Wildcats were running halfcourt offense. He also helped turn back an upstart Mississippi State team that hung around as long as it could.
The Bulldogs forgot about the game plan in the second half, according to coach Rick Ray, and began trying to get their own, offensively.
They also had no answers for James Young (26 points and 10 rebounds) or Dakari Johnson (eight points in eight minutes). And evidently, they sold Poythress short in their scouting report, although with this talented Kentucky team, it can be pick-your-poison time.
Wednesday night in Rupp Arena, Poythress was lethal. He often showed he was the best player on the floor, the kind Calipari needs him to be. And the coach, no doubt, was happy both with him and for him – but we’ll have to wait a day or so to find out. The UK coach skipped the post-game media session as well as his radio show to duck out early for the hospital, where his son Brad is recovering from knee surgery.
But assistant coach John Robic stepped in with the high praise, echoing Calipari’s comments. “That's how Alex's been practicing,” Robic said. “He's played very, very well. His confidence level should be at an all‑time high and I really think that he's seeing that. He's bringing an energy. He's doing the things that he can do.”
His teammates are bullish on Poythress as well.
“Alex is doing great,” said James Young. “He’s been working really hard in practice and that’s carrying over into the game. I guess you could put him anywhere on the court you want and he’ll catch a lob and you saw that today.”
Freshman center Dakari Johnson saw it the same way. “He was huge tonight, but he’s been practicing like that,” Johnson said. “Coach Cal’s been saying if he practices like that, it’s going to translate in the game.”
And it did, which could be why Poythress sometimes makes it look so easy. “I was just trying to bring some energy and just play,” he said. “We were down at first so we had to pick up the energy and start playing.”
Poythress provided the juice, just as a good 6th Man should. Former Wildcat Kyle Wiltjer made a name for himself by coming off the bench and knocking down three-pointers. Poythress has other ideas.
“Offense will take care of itself,” he said. ”We were trying to guard and try to pick it up on the defensive end. Get blocked shots, get steals and get more shots.”
And it worked. A crowd that sat on its hands for most of the first half spent much of the second period banging those same hands together in appreciation for the high-flying antics of Poythress, Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and their teammates, who pulled away from the Bulldogs by moving the game from the floor to the rim.
That’s where Poythress does some of his best work. And that’s why John Calipari has been telling us for most of the last month: Buy him. Buy Alex Poythress.
You’ll be glad you did.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)