On the court, Kentucky men’s basketball has looked like a team with high hopes for the upcoming season. Two exhibition games in the Bahamas have seen the Wildcats win by a combined 114 points with all 10 rotational pieces generating highlight plays on both ends of the floor. The competition isn’t to the level of what it will be once the regular season rolls around, but it’s allowed the team to build some confidence, establish an early identity, and learn how to play alongside each other. Kentucky has recorded 49 assists compared to just 18 turnovers through its first two games on the Big Blue Bahamas Tour.
With two more games left this weekend before the team heads back to Lexington, Kentucky will continue to build on-court chemistry, but it’s what will happen off the court over the next few days that could pay dividends come March.
“This is what it’s all about. The camaraderie,” Assistant coach Chin Coleman said following Thursday’s 102-40 victory over Tec de Monterrey. “We’ve got guys going fishing tomorrow, we’ve got guys going to the waterpark tomorrow, we’ve got guys making sand castles. That’s how you win basketball games. The game is won before it’s even played. If you win your locker room and your guys are connected — we talk about connectivity, it’s won off the court, so the stuff that these guys are doing, it’s so invaluable to our season that we’re happy we get a chance to come down here and bond and build sand castles and get me on a picture of a shirt. This is the stuff that wins basketball games so we’re taking advantage of this opportunity.”
It’s been mostly a basketball trip (or business trip in the case of Oscar Tshiebwe) for the team since arriving at the Baha Mar Resort on Monday, but with plenty of fun and team bonding sprinkled in. They’ve been able to sneak in a boat ride and made a pit stop at the waterpark. On Friday — an off day from games — the team spent the morning helping out one of head coach John Calipari’s most passionate projects, working with Samaritan’s Feet to supply children with shoes in the local area.
As Coach Coleman said, the team will go fishing and hit the waterpark again on Friday to enjoy the brief back from basketball. This is still a vacation, after all.
This team already knows each other pretty well, too. Six rotational pieces from last season’s roster returned for the 2022-23 season, including a couple in Jacob Toppin and Lance Ware who are now entering year three at Kentucky. Having those relationships already in place is unusual for a Calipari-led team, but the early returns from two preseason games have proven to be encouraging.
“The atmosphere is amazing. We all love each other, we’re all brothers,” Toppin told KSR after Thursday’s blowout win. “Even when we have disagreements we don’t let it nag on. We figure out what we need to do to help each other. I like this group a lot because everyone’s locked in, everyone’s talking to each other, everyone’s trying to make each other better, so that’s a big part of success.”
The start of the regular season is still roughly three months away, but it’s tough not to notice the subtle improvements from the returning players and standout performances from the trio of freshmen.
“I think we’re doing great,” CJ Fredrick told KSR Thursday night. “For it to be August 11 and for as smooth as we’re playing right now, I’m not surprised — I guess I am a little surprised. I didn’t think we’d look this good right away. A huge emphasis has been on defense and I’m not surprised our defense looks good right now because we hammer it every day in practice. But I am a little surprised. For August 11 with young guys and new pieces coming and playing together, we look pretty solid right now.”
If sand castles and water slides lead to success, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.