Tyler Ulis was his usual self (outrageous, magical), Jamal Murray as well (double-teamed but productive) but it was Poythress who dueled with Isaac Humphries for the affections of the Rupp Arena crowd and he didn’t disappoint.
“I just think he’s a tough guy to cover inside,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said of Poythress. “He’s a bit quick for our big guys. He can get off the floor and had he not gotten injured last year he would probably not have been in the building tonight,” meaning Johnson believes the UK forward would have wound up in the NBA Draft.
Poythress entered at the 17:20 mark and scored 29 seconds later, his first bucket since missing five games with a sore knee. Time and again he took an entry pass and immediately wheeled or spun to the basket, dropping in 5-of-6 shots, plus 4-of-6 free throws for 14 points in 17 minutes. John Calipari no doubt is willing to overlook his grabbing only one rebound.
“I was really proud of him,” Calipari said. “He could have stayed out a couple more days. He knew the team needed him. To have one day to practice, to do what he did – amazing.”
Poythress after the game was his usual soft-spoken self, preferring to let his action on the court speak for him. “It just felt good to be out there again,” he said. “You know, just playing.”
Humphries was in the starting lineup in place of Derek Willis, the injured forward with the Ankle of Many Colors. Willis’ absence meant less effective spacing for the Wildcats, but Humphries’ presence added up to more muscle underneath. It paid off. The Crimson Tide had a rash of offensive rebounds early, but finished the first half with only four and snagged only two more in the second half.
Humphries wasn’t quite as productive as he was against Texas A&M, scoring four points, grabbing four boards and blocking one shot in 21 minutes, but he made Crimson Tide players in the paint alter their shots and managed to block out well enough to help Marcus Lee grab 12 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass.
Calipari credits the extra work Humphries has put in with associate head coach Kenny Payne, who works with the Kentucky big men. “Kenny Payne is meaner than I am,” he told Tom Leach in his post-game radio interview. “You’ve got guys looking… ‘Is Kenny out there?’ They don’t want to come out. But here comes Isaac. He’s out there – ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ “
Calipari said it still comes down to work ethic. And he fell back on a favorite metaphor. “If there’s a pack of dogs,” he said, “and they throw in a bone – one dog eats. You wanna eat? GO GET THE BALL. You wanna be that guy. That’s the guy that eats. We’re trying to get all these guys to eat.”
Canine culinary traits aside, the Cats devoured the Tide on the boards, 41-29, outscoring ‘Bama 22-14 in the paint. It was vital to get it done on the glass because Alabama, like every team the Wildcats are facing now, concentrated primarily on two strategies: Double-teaming Murray every time he touched the ball, and preventing the Cats from scoring in transition.
The Crimson Tide did limit Kentucky to only six fast-break points (matching the total itself) but Murray still got his, scoring 23 points. “He’s not turning the ball over and that’s one of the reasons why we only had four turnovers,” Ulis said. “He’s playing at a very high level. That’s what is helping us get these wins.”
Ulis earned another fan Tuesday night. Avery Johnson both played and coached in the NBA and he doesn’t want to hear anything about Ulis’ size hampering him at the next level.
“You’re about the fifth person to ask me today,” Johnson said in the media room after the game, “and I’ll give you the same answer – he’s a pro. He can play on the professional level. He’s probably better than a lot of the guys who are there now. He’s good, man. He can do everything. Now, when I was playing in the NBA, there was guys like Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues, but you know he is much better than those guys were offensively. And boy, he’s a pure point guard who can hold his own.
“He takes charges. He throws his body. What does he weigh, about 160? Wet, maybe? So, he gets his body in there.”
Johnson admitted to a bit of point guard envy. “Here’s a guy who put on a show when Cal got kicked out at (South) Carolina,” he said. “He’s a coach’s dream, man. His double-double speaks volumes.”
Ulis finished with 19 points and 10 assists, the fifth time he’s reached double-digits in assists, setting a new school record. Johnson tried his best to prepare the Tide for Ulis, but how do you match his uncanny abilities in practice?
“As a coach you don’t like playing against him,” Johnson said, “but I see a lot of the things I did as a player in him. He’ll probably have a long, long career.”
He helped make it a long, long night for Alabama.