NASSAU, Bahamas — Hoping to evaluate instead of coach, John Calipari walked from the Kentucky bench, across the court and to the top row at Kendal G.L. Isaacs Gymnasium to watch Monday’s exhibition game in the Bahamas.
He had to have liked what he saw.
Kentucky got pushed around early by a veteran team of professionals, fell behind by eight points, and then answered the bell with an impressive 12-0 first-half run from its unit of “backups” and a dominant second-half performance that ultimately led to an 81-58 rout of Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket on Monday.
“They’re a really big team,” said Champagne forward Da’Sean Butler, who was a star on the 2010 West Virginia team that got a firsthand look at one of Calipari’s most talented teams at UK and knocked it out of the NCAA Tournament. “I heard (Jay) Bilas had them picked to win (the national title). I might have to jump on the bandwagon. They’re a really good team, man.”
The Cats, after leading by five at halftime, quickly built their lead to double digits and never looked back. At one point UK led a team that features four players with NBA experience by 29 points.
Not bad for a group that played without its head coach, who sat in the stands Monday to watch and take notes and at one point in the second half operated ESPNU’s center-court camera for its national broadcast.
“At the end of the day these kids did it and it had nothing to do with coaching,” said assistant Kenny Payne, who served as UK’s head coach for the game on Monday. “We have a whole bunch of very talented young men who play great together and love each other and they’re learning about each other. It makes our job a lot easier.”
Aaron Harrison ignited that 12-0 run by coming up with a steal and slaming home a one-handed dunk over a defender.
Karl-Anthony Towns took Kentucky’s five-point halftime lead and built on it with a dominant second half. The 6-foot-11 freshman forward, drawing on some of his experience with the Dominican Republic national team, finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
Towns experienced mixed results after a good but not great game Sunday in which he roamed the perimeter a bit too much. Towns said he got off to a rough start again Monday, but he got his game on track when he went inside and went to a power game.
“I think that my size sometimes deceives people, but at the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for the team, and today, for me, the best thing I could do for the team was give them an inside presence,” Towns said.
Payne called Towns’ performance on the glass “unbelievable,” but he said the coaching staff is not satisfied because of Towns’ tendency to want to be a perimeter big man.
“In order for him to be the best player in the country, in order for him to be a professional, in order for him to dominate college basketball, it has to start from the inside-out,” Payne said.
Joining Towns in double-figures for the Cats were Alex Poythress with 16 to go along with eight rebounds and Dakari Johnson with 10. Marcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins finished with seven points apiece.
Butler led Champagne with 10 points while Tasmin Mitchell and Darryl Watkins added nine each.
Payne thought the Cats needed to get punched in the mouth so they and the coaching staff could see how they would respond to adversity. It is, after all, a trip to learn.
“The telling thing was that after they hit us, we made adjustments,” Payne said. “We played more physical. We dictated the pace of the game. And we’re not just dictating the pace with grown men; you’re dictating the pace with grown men that play this game for money. That’s a great sign. That should build confidence in them and in each other and individually because that’s what it’s going to take to win.”