Greetings from Lynden Pindling International Airport, where I’m killing time before my flight back to Nashville after nearly a week with the Cats in the Bahamas. Judging by the remaining fans I’ve seen around the resort and now the airport, we’re all a lot poorer and a little more sunburnt than when we left, but there’s no denying the extra spring in our step after watching the Cats roll over their competition.
While I have wifi, here are my ten major takeaways from my front row seat to seeing the Cats in paradise.
1. The power outage game is the one I won’t forget
There are certain moments in life you will never forget; for Kentucky fans on this trip, that’s when the power went out vs. the Argentinian team Thursday night. Power outages are apparently common on Paradise Island, but the fact that it happened right after Tyler Herro hit his third three had to be the work of the basketball gods. “Tyler Herro shot the lights out” is the new “Andrew told Aaron to shoot the ball” amongst fans, and just one crazy moment on a bizarre and wonderful night. From the KSR crew scrambling to provide coverage to the players refusing to let the game be called and even Dan Dakich and Seth Greenberg making children run wind sprints on the court during halftime, the surreality of that night is a high that’s hard to come down from. For me, that night joins the tornado game at the SEC Tournament in Kentucky Basketball lore.
2. Tyler Herro is a folk herro
Watching Tyler Herro in Wisconsin back in February proved to me that he’s not just the three-point specialist many billed him as; however, Herro’s versatility was even more impressive in the Bahamas. During his few months in Lexington, Herro has further expanded his game to the point that Kentucky can’t afford to keep him on the bench too long. Herro led the Cats in scoring on the tour with 17.3 points per game, and his high-flying style made the main talking point of the trip whose game his resembles the most. (I still think Devin Booker, by the way.)
3. Sophomore Nick Richards isn’t the same person
Credit Drew Franklin, credit Bob Rotella, credit whatever the heck he did during the summer, but Sophomore Nick Richards is a totally different player than he was back in March. The media had access to the locker room during the NCAA Tournament, and I’ll never forget how sad Richards seemed as reporters brushed past him to talk to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Kevin Knox. Richards’ improved confidence was palpable in the Bahamas, prompting Ellen Calipari to go into the locker room after the final game and note his transformation. We’ve always heard about Richards’ potential, but we’re finally starting to see it. I watched him in pregame warmups on Sunday and he didn’t miss a single shot from just inside the three-point line. He needed baby steps of confidence, and on this trip, he took a giant leap.
This brings me to my next point…
4. Where are the holes?
Coming in to this trip, I did not expect Sophomore Nick Richards to play like that, which is why I’m even more excited about this team. The Cats go two-deep at almost every position, and if Nick’s playing like that, there are no holes. If you nitpick, maybe there’s a question of who backs up Keldon Johnson at the three, but the versatility of this squad allows for countless combinations.
5. Immanuel Quickley is better than advertised
For one reason or another (perhaps the excitement over the late addition of Ashton Hagans?), Immanuel Quickley has been overlooked this summer, but he proved his worth in the Bahamas, registering 18 assists to only two turnovers through four games. Quickley won’t make as many highlight reels as Ashton Hagans, but he will fill up the box score, and his high basketball IQ and peskiness on defense make he and Ashton a formidable duo. Also, his family is awesome.
6. Reid Travis is a grown man
Yesterday, I finally got to speak to Reid Travis after the game, and man, he is impressive. After talking to 18 and 19-year-olds in this job for six plus years, Travis’ maturity is a breath of fresh air. Everyone who interacted with him prior to me raved about his intelligence and thoughtfulness, and they were right. Travis never loses eye contact with you during interviews and carefully considers his responses. His play on the court is also deliberate, and although he’s missing a lot of bunnies right now, his rebounding is remarkable. Yesterday, he told reporters that one of his biggest takeaways from the trip is how intelligent the Kentucky fanbase is and how much their support has meant.
“It really shows how plugged in and how much love and support they have,” Travis said of the fans. “Even when I was struggling the last couple of games, I had nothing but support from the fans. It really just shows how intelligent the fanbase is. They know their basketball and they’re not just standing around here clapping their hands. They know how the game goes and the progression of the season, things like that. That’s been really interesting to me, how much people are into basketball.”
Flattery will get you everywhere, Reid.
7. An openness I haven’t seen in years
Reid Travis was great, but all of the players I talked to were really impressive, and a breath of fresh air after a few years of coach speak interviews and canned responses. I realize it was the Bahamas and they dominated, but you could tell that each player was genuinely excited about this team and couldn’t wait to get back on the floor and compete. I’ve been asked a lot how this team compares to the 2015 team in terms of personality, and while there may not be a Karl (my all-time favorite), there are plenty of engaging personalities. From Keldon Johnson to Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Quade Green, this is a happy, engaging group, and they went out of their ways to make fans part of the fun. That speaks volumes to me.
8. Everyone was absolutely giddy on Saturday night
Thursday night was surreal due to the power outage, but Saturday night, the BBN hit its Bahamas high. Kentucky’s 36-point win over Serbian powerhouse Mega Bemax was the highlight of the trip in terms of basketball because we got to see what happens when this team doesn’t take its foot off the gas. As Keldon Johnson told Jon Hale after the game, the Cats were “going out there to take people’s hearts,” as evidenced by his barrage of ridiculous dunks. Calipari said he’s happy to have a few “dogs” back on his team, and Keldon is definitely one of them. He sets the tone for the entire team.
9. Cal may claim he’s pumping the brakes, but I don’t buy it
Similarly, pardon me if I roll my eyes at Cal’s “pump the brakes” talk. Cal is psyched about this team and it shows. He can disclaim it with all the “It’s just August” and “I’ve been doing this too long” lines he wants, but this team is good and he knows it. He tried to temper expectations by telling reporters he hasn’t even worked on defense much with this crew, and then raved about how well they did with the defensive rotations he did teach them. The team has a few days off before school starts, but you know the minute Calipari can get back in the gym with them to start working, he will. The taste of potential he got in the Bahamas has him starving for more; luckily, this group has an all-you-can-eat buffet of upside.
10. This team’s attitude is special
We’ve had three great teams during Cal’s time at Kentucky (2010, 2012, 2015), several good ones, and at least one clunker. The difference between them, in my eyes, is how badly they love the game and want to improve. More than once, I heard the players — including veterans PJ Washington, Nick Richards, and Quade Green — call this group special.
I don’t know what lies ahead for this squad, but after six days of watching them, I do know they love basketball, are desperate to succeed, and thrive on competition. And they have 85 days to get ready for Duke. Bring it on.