Alex Poythress was doing some serious spin control.
He was talking to the media, following Kentucky’s white-knuckling, 75-70 win over LSU, and he wanted people to know that yes, he DOES smile every now and then, and that he definitely loves basketball.
His demeanor and occasionally low-energy style of play would seem to belie that, but not on this day in Rupp Arena. His 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight-for-10 effort at the free throw line had him grinning, both on the court, and in the media room.
He copped to the grin. “Yeah,” he said. “But it wasn’t the first time I smiled.”
He was smiling when he said it, as though the notion that he wasn’t enjoying his basketball days at Kentucky was laughable. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be fun,” Poythress said. “I’ve been playing it forever. It’s always fun for me. People shouldn’t wonder that. People just think I’m a stone-faced kind of guy. I don’t know where that came from, but it’s all good.”
Archie Goodwin said he thought he saw a big game about to emerge from his teammate.
“That’s Alex at his best,” he said. “He’s a beast. It’s hard for us to lose when he plays like that.”
What hasn’t been fun of late has been practice. His own coach described it, at least where Poythress has been concerned, as “torture.”
“I was so proud of Alex, I can't begin to tell you,” John Calipari said. “He has basically, in his mind, been tortured to play harder, to compete. In other words, it's like torture what we're doing to him, just making him run, making him do individuals, pushing him, and for him to go out and make those free throws and come up with those balls and do the things that he did to help us win the game… and he smiled.
“That's the first time he smiled all year, as he walked off the court.”
It might be the first time he smiled in Calipari’s vicinity at the end of the game, but following the Marshall win on Dec. 22, Poythress was positively grinning, in part because of the victory and more than anything because the players had learned that they would, indeed, be able to go home for Christmas because they had played so well.
No such bonus awaits after this game, and not just because the Wildcats struggled to close out a mediocre LSU team. It is now the heart of the Southeastern Conference season, and a tough Ole Miss team awaits in Oxford. Kentucky has to clean up the kinds of mistakes that caused an 11-point halftime lead to all but disappear.
In fact, had it not been for quick-thinking assistant coach John Robic, the Poythress smile might never have happened at all. With three seconds remaining, the Bayou Bengals had cut the UK lead to 71-70 and called timeout. After they broke the huddle, there were six Wildcats on the floor.
Just before an official handed the ball to Goodwin at the far end of the court, Robic noticed that Nerlens Noel was back on the floor, in front of the UK bench, even though Calipari had subbed him out.
Robic bolted onto the court, grabbed Noel and dragged him back to the bench, thus avoiding a technical foul that could have given the Tigers the opportunity to take the lead and steal a comeback victory. And apparently Robic did it emphatically, because Noel later told the Courier-Journal’s Kyle Tucker that the coach “almost ended my career” because of how hard he yanked him off the floor.
They all could smile about it (even Poythress) because the Wildcats survived, despite the fact that they blew a second-half lead for the second game in a row – and this one was at home. Calipari believes they’re tentative.
“They’re playing like they are afraid to lose, and I'm telling them, I'm not afraid to lose,” he said. “And if you win, who is going to get the credit? They will. And I already told them, if we lose, who is going to take responsibility? I've been here four years now. I will take responsibility. I'm not putting it on a player. So just play. If we lose, it's on me. If you win, it's about you. But these guys are young.”
Goodwin actually agreed with his coach, admitting that the Wildcats still have improvement to make in the confidence area. But he believes it is happening and when it does, he says, this team could be something special.
“It’s just a matter of executing and knowing we have each other’s back no matter what happens,” Goodwin said. “As soon as we figure out that no matter what happens, we have each other’s back, I think that’ll go away.”
If it does, the wins will come more easily –and so will the smiles.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th 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.)