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Communication keys defense in win over Boise State

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UK held Boise State nearly 27 points below its season average in a 70-55 victory in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK held Boise State nearly 27 points below its season average in a 70-55 victory in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As soon as John Calipari brought his team together for its first practice, he saw the potential for Kentucky to terrorize opponents with its rare cross of size and athleticism.

With a 6-foot-6 point guard in Andrew Harrison and a fleet-footed 7-footer in Willie Cauley-Stein manning the five, he knew there would be times the Wildcats could switch everything.

But as enticing as the possibility was, the concept was completely foreign to the players who would be executing it.

"Once I got here I wasn't really familiar with it because I was just used to face-guarding the guy all the time," James Young said. "So it took us some time to get used to it but we're getting better at it."

That improvement was on display as No. 11/10 UK (8-2) stifled Boise State -- previously the nation's second-highest scoring team -- in a 70-55 victory in Rupp Arena. Playing primarily a four-guard lineup, the Broncos (8-1) shot just 22 of 69 (31.9 percent) from the field on Tuesday night, including 22.9 percent in the second half.

"You've got Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein switching," said Boise State's Anthony Drmic. "They can still defend the guards."

More often than not, Cauley-Stein's defense resulted in blocked shots or, at the very least, altered ones. With nine swats on Tuesday to go with six points and seven rebounds, the sophomore upped his season total to 43.

"He was able to switch out on guards and play them," Calipari said. "They couldn't score on him. That's a problem.  When you're a guard, you drive right around them. The nine blocks, it's incredible what he did."

Cauley-Stein now has 28 blocks in his last four games to bring him to within one of Anthony Davis's record-setting 2012 pace through 10 games. As a freshman, Cauley-Stein didn't block his 43rd shot until February.

"I just know what I have to do now," said Cauley-Stein, who fielded as many questions about his newly bleached blonde hair as the win over Boise State. "Last year I was in between on what I was trying to do and this year just try to play around and block every shot I can or at least contest it."

As capable as Cauley-Stein may be of blocking shots and switching into smaller matchups, doing it is another matter. In fact, it's nearly impossible without the communication that was lacking as recently as Friday night in a loss to Baylor.

"There's a lot of things that happened from last game from the pick-and-rolls and stuff to just the communication, talking and breakdowns," said Randle, who had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. "We talked a lot better on the floor. We still had some breakdowns, but we got better."

According to the Cats, that has a lot to do with the little things that were so emphasized in practice on Sunday and Monday.

Coach Cal noticed in the Baylor defeat that his team was missing out on simple stuff like huddling before free-attempts and high-fiving teammates when they came to the bench, so they went to work.

"You notice we huddled," Calipari said. "How about this one? We touched each other. In the huddles we talked to one another. You may have noticed when a guy came out of the game, they all stood up, except one time they didn't. I jumped the bench."

Simple -- and maybe even silly -- as it may sound, those things matter.

"You touch and talk," Calipari said. "That's how you start becoming a team and coming together. Again, you can't be into your own thing. It's stuff that we have to teach."

It's not happening overnight or even in a pattern as steady as he may like, but the Cats are learning.

"It definitely is helping us," said Young, who had 21 points and a career-best nine rebounds. "Before we really didn't do it so I feel like we were kind of separated. But it's just bonding us more."

Nine days ago, the Cats were signing a similarly positive tune. They had just dispatched a solid Providence team on a neutral court and believed they were making significant strides. But last Friday, that progress was erased along with UK's nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes to go against Baylor.

Now, UK looks to put an end to that two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance with a trip to No. 18/21 North Carolina.

"I think we took a big step back from the Baylor game so we just back where we was at before that," Cauley-Stein said. "Now we just gotta make sure this next game that we keep it up and guard like that again and start from there and keep on building on little things until it becomes perfection."

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