Karl-Anthony Towns had 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal in UK's 92-44 win over UT Arlington on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari can sense the narrative changing.
The season began with incessant talk of Kentucky's platoon system and whether it would work, but the way the Wildcats are playing shifted the talk to defense.
Calipari, however, wants to press rewind. He wants to go back to the platoon talk, though with, as he would surely put it, a tweak.
"The story, everybody wants to talk about defense, they all want to talk about the energy, the blocked shots and the length, and the story is you have 10 guys sharing minutes," Calipari said. "That's the whole story in a nutshell."
No offense, Coach Cal, but this team's story can't fit in a nutshell, not with the way the Cats have been smothering opponents.
The latest victim to succumb to UK's waves of depth and athleticism was UT Arlington. Top-ranked Kentucky moved to 6-0 with a dominant 92-44 victory, holding the visiting Mavericks (3-2) to 27-percent shooting and a mere 0.611 points per possession and leaving yet another opposing coach raving, this time about exactly the topic Calipari wants everyone talking about.
"They played the game the right way, that's what is really impressive, to be able to get all of those NCAA All-Americans to play together as a team with 10 different guys, that is impressive," Scott Cross said.
But that defense though.
UK allowed just 12 points in building a 43-point halftime advantage, the second-largest in school history behind only the 44-point lead the 1996 team had on LSU on the strength of an 86-point explosion. Astoundingly, UT Arlington made just four field goals in 32 attempts, compared with eight blocks for the Cats, as UK closed the half on a 42-5 run.
The performance would have been more remarkable if it wasn't so, well, commonplace for this team.
Six times in 12 halves now, UK has allowed held its opponent under 20 points. The Cats have not yet allowed 40-percent shooting from the field in a game this season and opponents are shooting just 28.7 percent from 2-point range, good for second nationally. UK has 60 blocks to boot, and at least seven in every game this season.
"This team has a chance of being one of those teams you talk about defensively, like of all time, if they choose to be," Calipari said. "But they're going to have to choose to be that."
It seems they've already made that choice.
"Coach is a defensive guy," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had his first double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "He wants our offense to just (feed) off of our defense. So that's the biggest thing for us."
Towns, who upped his team-leading total to 21 blocks with three against UT Arlington, can remember hearing the old "defense wins championships" cliche throughout his youth, but it took coming to Kentucky for it to sink in.
"You're told that all the time in high school and middle school," Towns said. "You go to camps and stuff. But you don't really see that happening until you're in college. That's really the biggest thing. We're realizing that probably our biggest strength is our defense."
Calipari may have been the one who got the ball rolling with the defensive emphasis, but the players have taken over pushing it down the hill.
"I wouldn't say it's Cal that's getting us into it," said Devin Booker, who has made 12 of his last 17 3-point tries after pouring in 19 points on 5-of-6 shooting from deep on Tuesday. "It's us as a collective group, you know. We just want to lock teams down. We take pride in it."
Booker and the Cats have quite a bit to be proud of, having allowed 72 points in their last two games combined. Seventy-eight Division-I teams are allowing 72 points per game or more on average this season.
For a team with 10 players among ESPN's top 100 prospects for next June's draft to sustain the focus necessary to do that to two admittedly overmatched opponents, not to mention holding then-No. 5 Kansas to 40 points, is nothing short of incredible.
Uh oh, Coach Cal heard that.
"I'll come back to this: In this day and age, every one of these kids has pro aspirations and pro potential, and they're draftable players, and they're doing this for each other," Calipari said. "This is crazy. That's why I say, for anybody in our society, where everybody talks about the me and mine and narcissism and all that, why wouldn't you root for this to happen and be good? I don't understand why you wouldn't root for this?"
The Cats become even harder to root against once you hear Towns navigate his way around an extended metaphor expertly cooked up for Thanksgiving week.
"I would say that if your group is doing what it's supposed to do, then everyone should eat," Towns said. "That's the biggest thing. There's a lot of food out there to go get. All you gotta do is go grab a plate and just go get it. That's the biggest thing for all of us. We have the utensils."
How does UK's defense fit into mix?
"It seems like the buffet line starts there," Towns said.
Part of having a roster made up of 64 percent underclassmen creates a consistent learning environment in the Nutter Training Facility.
With Kentucky preparing for its regular-season finale at No. 23 Louisville at noon on Saturday, the Wildcats are getting a lesson in what the UK-UL in-state rivalry means to the Commonwealth and the fan bases from each school.
The Wildcats have a total of 77 underclassmen on their 120-man roster and only 10 of the 58 players listed on the depth chart entering the finale at UL are from the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
"So excited about rivalry week, been educating the guys all week on the rivalry," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We educated them today about the Governor's Cup, what it means. Some of the coaches talked about their personal memories. Some of the in-state guys are going to talk tomorrow. We're just taking a little bit of our offensive meeting and trying to educate them, especially for some young guys from out of state, educating them, teaching them what a rivalry is and a little about Kentucky-Louisville."
Kentucky (5-6) enters the rivalry tilt with a lot more at stake than bragging rights. UK is seeking to earn its sixth win to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
While any rivalry game brings the challenge of managing the added emotion, UK's matchup in the Derby City will present a unique challenge for Brown's offense.
"Obviously Louisville is very, very talented on defense," Brown said. "They're well coached. They play hard. That's the thing that struck me last year preparing for them -- and I know it's a different coaching staff, but it's a lot of the same kids -- they really get after it. They rise up every week. And they play good, solid defense, as good as anybody we've played."
The Wildcats will be seeking to reestablish an offense that shined early in the season in games with UT Martin, Florida, South Carolina and ULM, and 31-point performances in losses to No. 1 Mississippi State and Georgia over UK's last four games.
After UK had an eight-game stretch - including seven against SEC foes - the Wildcats benefited from a bye on Saturday, giving UK fresh legs entering the matchup at UL.
"The bye was good for us. We needed it," Brown said. "I think we were getting worn down there. We used last week to kind of re-engergize, coaches and players. We had a good, spirited workout today, do that tomorrow and then kind of wind down and get ready for Saturday at noon."
With two former Cats sidelined by injury and one former Cat enjoying his team's bye week, Week 12 saw five Kentucky NFL alumni emerge victorious and four go home with the sour taste of defeat.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (8-3) In a game that concluded on a much tighter note than expected, Cobb hauled in four receptions for 58 yards in a 24-21 win over the Minnesota Vikings. For the second consecutive week, Cobb failed to reach the end zone, leaving his season touchdown total untouched at 10 (tied for fourth most in the NFL).
John Conner | #38 FB | New York Jets (2-9) Conner, who came to the University of Kentucky as a walk-on in 2005, has been considered one of the best blocking backs in football since his days in college. As many teams stray away from the fullback position in favor of today's modern rushing attack, Conner still continues to find his way onto an NFL roster each season. "The Terminator" recorded his first rushing attempt since 2011 with a 13-yard run in Monday's 38-3 loss to the displaced Buffalo Bills.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-9) For the sixth time in his rookie season, Williamson totaled at least six tackles in one contest. The 6-foot-1 Tennessee native made five solo tackles and one assist in the Titans' 43-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-9) For the fourth time this season, Woodyard totaled at least eight tackles in one contest. The seven-year NFL veteran matched Williamson's tally of five solo tackles, but surpassed his Titans teammate with three assisted tackles in Tennessee's fifth consecutive loss.
Two weeks into the season, Kentucky is one of just three teams with a win over a top-10 opponent.
To go with that victory against then-No. 8 Baylor, the Wildcats have two more home wins and another on the road against a Central Michigan expected to contend for a conference championship.
But for UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell, it's not all sunshine and rainbows.
"We are off to a 4-0 start and it's good results for us," Mitchell said, "but we really, really need to get better as a basketball team."
During Thanksgiving week, the ninth-ranked Cats will have ample opportunity to do just that while getting some literal sunshine along the way.
Starting on Thursday, UK will play in the Paradise Jam Island Tournament in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Cats left for the U.S. Virgin Islands (forecast 81 degrees and sunny on Thanksgiving Day) early Tuesday morning for a trip where they'll mix basketball and some tourist activities.
First up, UK will face Illinois, off to 4-0 start identical to the Cats', at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. Next is 3-0 Oklahoma (receiving votes in the AP Top 25) on Friday at 6 p.m. with USF (3-1) to close it out on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
"Three games against three really quality opponents in three days will be a tough task down in the Virgin Islands," Mitchell said. "It's a great trip; it's a great tournament."
For UK to most effectively capitalize, Mitchell has one thing on his mind above all else.
"From a basketball standpoint right now, we are really needing to improve defensively," Mitchell said. "You can be a good defensive team if you give consistent effort. You're a great defensive team if you give consistent effort along with consistent fundamentals and technique. We are neither one of those right now."
More than anything else, it was the second half of UK's win at Central Michigan that had him thinking that way.
After a solid first half, the Cats built a lead that ballooned to 20 points with 16:13 left. The Chippewas would chip away from there, missing a would-be game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds as UK survived, 71-68. CMU shot 44.8 percent from the field in the second half after the Cats held them to 28.6 in the first.
"A lot of energy in the first half, a lot of focus in the first half, a lot of disruption," Mitchell said. "And in the second half, it was very little attention to detail, very little energy defensively."
Mitchell, though he's demanding improvement, isn't concerned. Bumps in the road, especially this early in the season, are to be expected. What the Cats can't do is become satisfied with a little early-season success.
"We can't take the approach of, 'Well, we beat Baylor and we're a highly ranked team and so we just show up and take the floor,' " Mitchell said. "That's not our formula. Our formula is being honest with ourselves, working really hard and having some discipline. I think that the players, once they see the visual evidence, they'll get it corrected."
With that in mind, Mitchell will be looking for a few simple things as he coaches his team this week.
"If we do nothing else, we're just Kentucky tough and Kentucky tenacious and playing together and being the fastest, most disruptive, toughest team we can be in that tournament," Mitchell said. "If we can accomplish those goals, the technique and the positioning and those kind of mistakes will start to work itself out."
Week four in the NBA was highlighted by a heavyweight matchup between two of the most dominant big men the league has to offer. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis squared off on Tuesday night as the Pelicans edged the Kings 106-100.
Even in a losing effort Cousins was still able to battle one of the toughest frontcourts in the NBA as he scored 24 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. Davis had 28 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals in the Pelicans' win.
Both bigs followed up their blockbuster battle with even more dominance later in the week. Cousins was named Western Conference Player of the Week for the second time in his career as he finished out the week with 31 points and 18 rebounds in a road win Sunday against the Timberwolves. Davis posted a career-high 43 points to go along with 14 rebounds in a 106-94 win against former Cat Enes Kanter and the Utah Jazz.
Kanter has solidified his role as a starter and major contributor for the Jazz while averaging 13 points and six rebounds through 11 games this season.
Other week four highlights
Eric Bledsoe has been a model of consistency in his first 14 games under a new contract for the Phoenix Suns. In week four Bledsoe was the focus in leading the Suns to a 4-0 record on the road dating back to last Monday. The former Kentucky guard posted 14 points, six assists, and six rebounds per game during the current win-streak for phoenix.
James Young shined in his D-League stint with the Maine Red Claws. The rookie shooting guard scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a winning effort for the Celtics' D-League affiliate. The goal for Young was to use his time in the D-League to work back into game shape after sustaining multiple injuries in the preseason. He is set to rejoin the Celtics this week for their home stand against the Bulls and the Spurs.
Week five TV schedule
Wednesday: Memphis (Tayshaun Prince) @ L.A. Lakers 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV Friday: L.A. Clippers @ Houston (Terrence Jones) 8:00 p.m. on NBA TV Saturday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis, Darius Miller) @ Washington (John Wall) 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Win-or-go-home games are a rarity in college football.
With the way the season is structured, most teams know by the final week of the regular season whether a bowl game is in their future.
Kentucky's December, however, is still very much up in the air.
The Wildcats now face a simple choice: win a game on the road against their archrival or watch their season end one victory shy of bowl eligibility.
Mark Stoops doesn't dispute that it's a source of motivation, though he adds a caveat.
"I think they all know what we're playing for," Stoops said. "They know that. There's no point in hiding from it. But it's not the only message, right?"
The circumstances of UK's regular-season finale are different than any of the first 11 games of 2014, but Stoops isn't about to forsake the focus that he's had all year for a trip to Louisville at noon on Saturday.
"The message is to do what we constantly preach, and that is put the time and effort and focus into our preparation," Stoops said. "It's not just turning it on on game day. We've got to have a great week."
The hope is that UK laid the groundwork for that great week by capitalizing on a much-needed open date. The Cats' bye week began with days off for players on Sunday and Monday, followed by a return to practice on Tuesday.
"It was good just to get out, after a couple days' rest, get out and do some good, competitive work," Stoops said. "Get back to some fundamentals. Do some things that we do through camp where we go good against good, do some one-on-ones."
In the midst of a grueling stretch of eight games in eight weeks - seven coming against league opponents - UK had little choice but to go straight from one game plan to the next. The bye week afforded the Cats the opportunity to think about football, not any specific game.
"You get so enamored with the Xs and Os and assignments that you drift from some of the basics," Stoops said. "We obviously try not to. We constantly have individual in certain things, but it was good to spend more time with that last week."
Once the week of practice was over on Friday, the Cats were given the weekend off. Many players took the opportunity to spend some time at home considering they'll be practicing in Lexington over Thanksgiving this week, while Stoops stayed in town and watched football on Saturday.
"I couldn't get away from it too far," Stoops said. "I didn't watch as much as I normally do though, actually. I got out of the house. Took my boys out of the house for a while."
Stoops made sure to be in front of a television for most of Louisville's 31-28 win at Notre Dame on Saturday. He was impressed.
"Their coach (Bobby Petrino) is doing a great job," Stoops said. "They haven't missed a beat to what they've been doing. They win a bunch of football games, they play extremely hard. They're very well coached, and that's an impressive win. They're playing good football." Stoops wants UK-U of L to go national
Stoops came to Kentucky to build a program. In doing so he hopes to turn UK-U of L into a football rivalry known nationally.
"Well, we're trying to create it to be a bigger and better rivalry," Stoops said. "I think that comes from us having to play better football and winning more games and putting ourselves in a position where we can get this game on a more national scale."
In the meantime, it's a game both sides still want to win badly.
"It's important to the people in this state," Stoops said. "It's important to our fans and our players and coaches. So, you know, I think it's just like most of these games. It's important to a lot of people, and you feel that, and you want to go play well."
Baker out for season with knee injury
Wide receiver Dorian Baker sustained a non-contact injury to his knee in practice last week. He will undergo surgery and will miss the Louisville, as well as a bowl game should UK reach one. The true freshman has appeared in 10 of UK's 11 games this season, making three starts and catching 19 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.
Also likely to be sidelined for UK's regular-season finale is tackle Kyle Meadows, who is suffering from an ankle injury. Patrick Towles also has an injured ankle, but he played through it against Tennessee and Stoops hopes to have him at full strength for practice on Monday afternoon.