Devin Booker tied a career high with 19 points in UK's 83-44 win over UCLA on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CHICAGO -- His team mired in a cold streak from outside, John Calipari asked a rhetorical question about what UK would do to its opponents if the Wildcats hit their 3s.
Anyone who didn't know the answer found out Saturday.
The Cats came out firing against UCLA, building a 16-0 lead and hitting two 3s before the second platoon even checked in. Once it did, Devin Booker hit two more 3s in a personal eight-point barrage that gave UK an insurmountable 24-0 lead.
From there, UK had to find a new opponent.
"We have to keep playing against (ourselves)," Booker said. "Coach always stresses to us that we're not playing against the other team, we're against ourselves."
Coach Cal, meanwhile, wasn't even bothering to look at the score as the No. 1 Cats raced to a 41-7 halftime advantage. He did sneak a peek or too after halftime though, which told him everything he needed to know about UK's 83-44 win over the Bruins (8-4).
"I didn't look at the score," Calipari said. "Like in the first half, I did not know what the score was. I knew it was pretty good, but I did not look -- to be honest, I couldn't find it in the arena."
UK fans, who accounted for the majority of the 19,726 fans in Chicago's United Center on Saturday afternoon, reveled in their team's 12th straight double-digit win to start the season, a school record. They cheered as the Cats smothered UCLA to the tune of 26.8-percent shooting and 0.618 points per possession. They applauded as UK hit 12 of 26 from 3-point range and exactly 50 percent from the field overall.
UCLA's Steve Alford, meanwhile, could do little but marvel at the group his friend Coach Cal has assembled.
"I don't know in my 20 years of coaching at the Division I level that I've coached against a better team than what this team looks like," Alford said. "They have everything."
Though he wasn't as quick to pump the brakes on the hype machine as he was after the last time UK demolished a fellow blue-blood program in a made-for-TV neutral-site showdown against Kansas last month, Coach Cal didn't join the chorus praising UK as a potential all-time team. Painting a masterpiece, after all, happens one brushstroke at a time.
"I'm day to day," Calipari said. "I'm in a grind and I'm staying in the moment. The one thing I'm doing is really enjoying these guys."
It isn't their dominance on the court that Calipari is enjoying so much either, at least not primarily. To him, it's all about the selflessness that's allowing it all to happen.
"We can all talk about defense and blocking shots and playing hard, but you've got 10 guys, 11 guys sharing minutes," Calipari said.
At point guard, you have Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, who combined for 15 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
Aaron Harrison and Booker are splitting minutes at shooting guard, but that didn't stop them from accounting for 34 total points on eight made 3s.
Among UK's frontcourt players, no one among Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson or Trey Lyles had eye-popping numbers, but as a group they dominated.
"I think the story is how good are these kids, and how strong are these families and how trusting they are," Calipari said. "Willie said it after the Kansas game. He came in and said, we trust the coaches, and we trust each other. That's what this is. It's a group of kids that trust."
Relying on that trust, the Cats are accepting their coach's challenge to dream. That's why they never relented even as their lead ballooned to as large as 46 points.
"As we go forward, we've got one thing, how do we continue, let's make this world class," Calipari said. "How do we become that world-class team, and it's real simple. One, you have few errors and you have no unforced errors. That's what a world-class team is about. The second thing a world-class team is about, they absolutely enjoy, even the tough times. They enjoy playing."
As much as they enjoy playing, the Cats couldn't help but look forward to a four-day break for the holidays that would follow the UCLA game. UCLA, as it turns out, was the only thing standing between the Cats and home.
"Everyone is excited," Booker said. "We're all excited to go home, and we knew we had to go through this first game and it wasn't going to be easy, but we just brought energy to the floor, and that's what put it over the top."
But after that break, it's back to business for Kentucky. Even with a trip to Louisville looming on Saturday, that means the Cats will be playing themselves more than the archrival Cardinals.
"You know, we're trying to build something here to say, you're going out, playing against yourself, and you hear these kids talking about it," Calipari said. "World-class teams play against themselves; they don't play against the opponent."
Tyler Ulis will play in his hometown of Chicago when UK faces UCLA on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and UCLA have long been parallel programs.
There have been occasional run-ins, namely the 1975 national championship game and a spat of meetings in the 1990s and 2000s, but the two teams with the most national championships in the history of the game have had separate existences.
For the next three years, that's changing.
UK and UCLA will have their first of three December matchups in as many seasons this weekend, starting a relationship John Calipari believes will be mutually beneficial.
"We want a tie to programs like that," Coach Cal said. "That's what we want."
The first game comes in the inaugural CBS Sports Classic at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, capping a doubleheader kicked off by North Carolina and Ohio State at Chicago's United Center. The next two matchups will be at Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena, respectively, but the first one is the focus for now.
"It's going to be a great experience to play against them, and being able to play at a neutral site is going to be fun," Trey Lyles said. "Hopefully we go out there and get the win."
UK (11-0), of course, enters the game with an unblemished record and a No. 1 ranking, while UCLA (8-3) is out of the polls in spite of winning four of its last five games. The Bruins are led by second-year head coach Steve Alford, with whom Calipari shares a close relationship.
"I've known him for years and years," Calipari said. "We've become close, but I knew him when he was at Southwest Missouri State. ... He and I have been close. When he went to Iowa, I think we played. They beat us when I was at Memphis, one of my first years. But he's a terrific coach, just a great guy."
Calipari and Alford will match wits on Saturday, but the two have very different teams.
Kentucky has suffocating depth and the platoon system, ranking second in the nation in bench minutes and featuring no player playing more than 24.5 minutes per game. Willie Cauley-Stein is the closest thing the Cats have to a traditional statistical standout, posting team bests of 10.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on a group perhaps most noteworthy for its balance.
UCLA, on the other hand, relies heavily on a capable starting five. Each Bruin starter is averaging double digits in points and four are playing at least 31 minutes per game, led by Bryce Alford. Alford, his head coach's middle child, is averaging 18 points and 6.7 assists in 34.9 minutes per game.
"He's one of those guys -- and there's not many in the country -- that can take over a game and change the complexion of a game within a minute and a half," Calipari said. "And the reason is he can pull up from anywhere, he makes free throws, he can get you in foul trouble, his three off the bounce, off the catch, very, very skilled and a great passer."
Alford has good options when he does pass, including freshman forward Kevon Looney, who is averaging a double-double with 13.9 points and 10.9 rebounds to establish himself as a potential top-10 pick. Senior guard Norman Powell, meanwhile, is averaging 17.4 points and shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range.
"He's like a scoring machine," Calipari said. "He's got some physique to him, he can get to the rim, he can make threes. He and Bryce in the backcourt have complemented each other."
The question, however, is how the Bruins will handle that UK depth.
The Cats have overwhelmed so far this season, winning all 11 of their games by double digits largely thanks to their ability to wear down the opposition with waves of depth.
"That's the whole idea of the platoon system is to try to bring in fresh bodies and wear the other team down," said Tyler Ulis, who will return to his hometown for the UCLA game. "I feel like every game we're coming in with the same attitude to try to attack them and get after it."
Lyles, meanwhile, has heard the talk of UK sprinting past UCLA thanks to that depth, but he knows the on-paper advantage grants them nothing.
"That may be true, but they have guys who can make plays and score the ball and do other things," Lyles said. "We're not going to look down on them because of that. We're going to accept the challenge and go out there and play to the best of our ability and play as a team."
Ultimately, UK is more concerned with maximizing its own potential than in playing any blue-blood matchup like Saturday's or engaging in the best-team-since-when hype that's already swirling.
"I think all of us let it go in one ear and out the other, because it really doesn't matter if we don't go out there and perform, so we need to go out there and play to the best of our abilities, and play as a team and continue to win," Lyles said. "So once the season is said and done, they can say that then."
Matthew Mitchell, with a week to prepare, has watched his share of tape on Duke.
He's come to a clear conclusion.
"We have quite a mountain to climb literally and figuratively," Mitchell said, not quite able to suppress a smile at the turn of phrase.
The Blue Devils you see, are likely the biggest team UK will face all season. The No. 8 Wildcats (10-1) have two players on their roster standing 6-foot-3. No. 13 Duke (6-3) has two such players as well, but also four coming in at 6-4 and another standing 6-5 with Kentucky coming to Cameron Indoor Stadium at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday for a showdown televised on ESPN2.
"The biggest team in Duke history is what they're saying," Mitchell said. "They just have massive size, so it will be a very interesting game. We are not the biggest Kentucky team history, but we do have some speed and quickness so we will have to try and see which style will win out."
More often than not, UK's style has been the one to get the better of its opponents this season.
The Cats already boast a pair of top-10 wins over Baylor and Louisville, both coming after double-digit comebacks. In the two games, UK overcame any deficits in size with that speed and quickness, but Duke is at another level in the post.
Duke, playing one of the nation's toughest schedules, is outrebounding opponents by 22.1 per game. Elizabeth Williams is one of five players averaging 4.8 or more rebounds per game, posting 11 to go with her 14.4 points per game.
UK's post players will be in for a challenge, particularly first-year contributors Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alex Jennings. The trio, along with Azia Bishop, has improved of late thanks to a lot of work.
"We had a good session after practice (Wednesday) with just Alyssa, Azia, (assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou and myself were just down there for about a half-hour after practice and there was some really good stuff happening," Mitchell said. "You just want to see it show up on the court at some point in time, and I think it will."
But just as importantly, Mitchell needs his perimeter players to set the tone with ball pressure. If they don't, all that work on the part of the post players likely won't matter much.
"We're really going to have to play with tremendous intensity on the perimeter because they're just so big," Mitchell said. "I mean, really, if you give them any chance at all, they'll just lob it up to (Azura) Stevens or Williams and it's almost like a jump ball. So who can jump the highest? They're probably going to jump higher than us. The guards are critical for us defensively in this game for us and without Bria, it's a big challenge."
Mitchell, of course, is referring to the absence of Bria Goss. The senior guard and UK's top defensive player will miss four to six weeks with a broken thumb suffered on Sunday before a win over Belmont. The injury will force the Cats to adjust on a couple fronts.
First, UK's smaller lineup is less of an option with Goss out.
"In some of the tight games that we've been in, I've sort of bailed them out by putting Makayla (Epps) at the four and I think for us long term in a game like this, we're probably going to have to have some size on the floor as you look at some of the bigger teams in the SEC, it's going to be necessary for our young post players to come along and contribute this season," Mitchell said. "It's a big test for them, on the road, at Duke, against a really big front line and so I think they're getting better."
And of course, someone will need to fill Goss' defensive void. Mitchell mentioned Jennifer O'Neill, Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps as candidates.
"Well, it's another great opportunity," Mitchell said. "Who is really going to step up and be a defensive stopper now? Who is going to step up?"
If someone does, the Cats could benefit in the long term.
"I think that you have to find the silver lining in these kinds of things," Mitchell said. "You must. And really, if we respond correctly, maybe we can be stronger in a month when Bria comes back and I told Bria it could be something greater for you. Maybe this gets us deeper into the tournament and makes us stronger."