Poythress through the years

Forward Alex Poythress of the Kentucky Wildcats shakes hands after the game against the LSU Tigers at Rupp Arena on March 4, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Taylor Pence

Josh Ellis

When he stepped into the Wildcat Coal Lodge for the first time, the 2012 Class AAA Tennessee Mr. Basketball probably expected a one-year stay. Now, four years later, he finds himself walking that same 30-foot saunter from the Lodge to the Joe Craft Center.

But in just a few short months, Alex Poythress will no longer make the leisurely stroll from his dorm to UK’s practice facility. He will no longer get to “enjoy” Camp Cal with those he has made unbreakable bonds with, and he won’t get a daily glance at the eight National Championship banners hanging on the wall of the Joe Craft Center.

What the Clarksville, Tennessee, native does get to continue doing, however, is finish an already unforgettable legacy at one of college basketball’s most prestigious programs.

It will not (and should not) matter how far this year’s Cats squad goes in the NCAA Tournament: Poythress has already done his due diligence. He’s not like any one of the other 24 scholarship players in the John Calipari era — that alone should be enough to engrave No. 22 as a UK great.

Poythress has made the Academic All-SEC every year since he enrolled at UK, he’s earned his undergraduate degree in business marketing in just three years, and he’s the only one of the 25 total scholarship players in the Calipari era to reach his senior year.

The only piece missing to an already impressive resume is a National Championship — something only one Calipari-coached team has accomplished. The 6-foot-8 forward has a chance to change that number before all is said and done.

In his first year at UK, many expected another solid season from the defending National Champs, despite the fact that seven players on the 2011-12 team departed to pursue professional careers. But in the team’s first game, the Cats barely edged out a Maryland team thanks to a lift off the bench from Jarrod Polson. Poythress posted eight points and seven rebounds in his first game as a Cat.

Then UK took on Duke in Atlanta — a game the Cats lost — but the emergence of Poythress nearly masked the defeat and kept fans hopeful for another deep tournament run. The guy who tallied 20 points and eight rebounds against the Blue Devils was the same guy NBA Scouts had in their list of projected first-rounders.

The season ended up taking a turn for the worse, as Poythress fought through inconsistency his freshman year, and UK, after missing out on the NCAA Tournament, was upset by Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

He could have joined teammates Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel and fulfilled his dream to become an NBA player after one year of college, but Poythress wanted to stay in Lexington.

“It wasn’t too hard. Every year you have to make a decision whether you stay or go,” Poythress said. “Decisions are made, I’m content with them. I feel like I made them for the best reasons, and I’m just moving on from there.”

His decision almost paid off the next year.

UK slid from No. 1 to No. 25 throughout the season, but a tweak before the postseason led the Cats all the way to AT&T Stadium and a chance at a National Championship.

In the Final Four against Wisconsin, Poythress helped contain the Badger’s Sam Dekker while scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds of his own. Then he watched teammate Aaron Harrison drain a go-ahead three in the final seconds to advance the Cats to the National Championship game — one of Poythress’ favorite memories at UK.

“(Aaron) had just hit one the game before and hit it again. Emotions, you know? Then we get to play in the national title game,” Poythress said. “Just making all your dreams come true, like what you dream of when you’re a little kid. You always dream of playing for a title and we had a chance to do that that year. I mean, this year we’re trying to do the same, but that year we were actually in the title game, just came up short.”

Once again Poythress decided to stay after the season ended, and once again he came up just shy of reaching another National Championship. Just eight games into his junior year, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during practice and missed the rest of the season.

He was forced to watch his team make history with 38 straight wins, only to then observe Dekker hit shot after shot and bury UK’s dream of a perfect season.

Now he’s here. Poythress is at the end of a meandering journey filled with ups and downs. He’s recorded career highs and career lows in this season alone. He’s even had his Senior Day, which made Calipari reflect on what Poythress has grown to be.

“But the great thing for Alex, he graduated in three years. He’s been a part of this program and seen all the highs and lows of it,” Calipari said after UK’s win over LSU. “He’s made unbelievable friends and he’s going to be a professional basketball player. It’s kind of neat to see and neat to see how much he’s grown.”

His time wearing the blue and white is coming to an end. Poythress will have one final ride to earn himself a National Championship, though his tenure at UK has almost been just as rewarding. 

“It’s been long, but it’s been great; some of the best memories of my life,” Poythress said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

So whether it be late March or early April when Poythress gets off the team bus following another NCAA Tournament, he’ll step onto the pavement and make his way past the bronze Joe B. Hall statue and into the Lodge.

His journey at UK will be officially over, but his new journey will officially begin.