Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 12/21/13

NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 20: Coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks to his team during the second round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena on March 20, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Expecting back-to-back national titles at Kentucky was a little unreasonable, especially with an entirely new cast. But, John Calipari assembled a good team, led once again by a group of outstanding freshmen. Maybe a second championship wasn't within reach, but a deep tournament run, maybe even another Final Four? That seemed possible, right? Last year's Kentucky team didn't even make the NCAA tournament. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin left after that one disappointing season, while Alex Poythress, a fellow top recruit with high expectations heading into the season, stayed behind for another year. He didn't want to leave after a first round NIT loss, and he had to improve his now fallen draft stock. He was second on the team in scoring (11.2 PPG) and third in rebounding (6 RPG) despite being fifth in minutes (25.8 MPG). At least now with Goodwin gone, and forward Kyle Wiltjer transferring, he would take on a larger role. Poythress hasn't even sniffed the starting lineup this season. It's a risk every returning player on a Calipari-coached team takes. They know their spot might be given to an incoming freshman with more potential. Poythress was one of those freshmen, and within a year he had become one of the "other" guys. Last season he played fewer than 20 minutes in only four of 33 games. In 11 games so far this year, he's already done so six times. He played six minutes in the team's loss to Baylor, a game in which Calipari said he "forgot" about his bench. The two forward spots have been cemented by newcomers James Young and Julius Randle. Even Willie Cauley-Stein, who played less than Poythress last year, is now producing more than him. But, as John Rothstein pointed out before the start of the season, Poythress has taken on a different role this season, aiming to be the Wildcats' glue guy. He's the sixth man on a team that doesn't have a ton of depth. So, while his actual numbers are down, he's still being relied upon to do quite a bit. Seth Davis mentioned Poythress' intangible improvements in regard to his mental approach: "Not showing up in the stats yet but I like Alex Poythress's improvement of late. Tougher and more aggressive mindset." Looking for some tangible improvement? Poythress has been one of the most efficient offensive rebounders in the country. According to Hoop Math, two-point jump shots account for 32.6 percent of the Wildcats' total field goal attempts, which is above the Division-I average of 29.6 percent. However, the Wildcats hit just 34.5 percent of those shots, slightly below the national average of 35.7 percent. Poythress's ability to hit the offensive boards can be extremely valuable for a team that enjoys shooting mid-range jumpers but doesn't particularly excel at making them. People looking for a comparison between last year's Kentucky team and the national championship winners may have hoped Poythress would be the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to Noel's Anthony Davis. Perhaps the footsteps Poythress should be following are Darius Miller's. Of course, Poythress doesn't have the experience or mental toughness of a Final Four-tested senior. If he really wanted to show the gritty mindset Davis said he has, he'd make more than eight of his 18 free throws so far this season, which is especially important for a team that has shot 59.8 percent from the line in three losses by a combined margin of 14 points. Am I saying Poythress will be a four year player? It's obviously too soon to tell. But, he clearly went a different path than the typical elite recruit when he abstained from being one-and-done. He's not "the guy," but he's not just another guy, either. When I compare Poythress now to the moment he stepped on campus, I wonder if he's had to fit into the role given to him, or if he has finally been given a role more suitable to him. Maybe he's just adapting to the situation. Or maybe we're adapting our expectations to who he really is.
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