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Coach Cal's Ole Miss game plan leaves Cats no choice but to talk

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Alex Poythress scores two of his 10 points on a rim-rattling first-half dunk vs. Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress scores two of his 10 points on a rim-rattling first-half dunk vs. Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within just a couple games of his college career, opponents realized they had to throw two and three defenders at Julius Randle. Otherwise, he was perfectly capable of winning a game on his own.

After more than two months of watching his star freshman swarmed from tip to buzzer, John Calipari drew up a similar game plan for Marshall Henderson.

"Obviously, Henderson could go for 40 and we were doing stuff that you don't do to a normal player," Calipari said. "He gets played like Julius gets played. You've got to keep him away, and it forces you to do different things. That's how good he is."

Henderson, of course, gets the job done in very different ways from Randle. He uses off-ball screens to create openings, hoisting nearly 75 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point line. So instead of sending bodies inside at Henderson as teams do with Randle, UK took a team approach to defending the senior guard.

"You can't try to stop him from shooting; you just have to make him take some tough shots," said Aaron Harrison, who scored 16 points. "He's going to hit some tough shots but you gotta keep making him take tough shots."

Harrison began the game guarding Henderson, but he was hardly alone. When he got hung up on one of the seemingly countless screens the Ole Miss Rebels set for their leading scorer, one of his teammates switched onto Henderson.

"When a shooter runs off screens and picks and baseline run-ins like he does, that's a smart thing you can do is switch out because we are so versatile," Poythress said after a solid 10-point, seven-rebound effort. "A lot of our players can guard a lot of positions so it works to our advantage."

As expected, Henderson scored his points -- 16, to be exact -- but the Cats made him work to do it. He shot just 6-of-18 from the field and 4-of-12 from 3-point range, committing three turnovers in the process. With Henderson limited, No. 18/14 UK (17-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) rode a dominant second half to an 80-64 win over Ole Miss (15-7, 6-3 SEC) on Tuesday in Rupp Arena.

At different points, everyone from Aaron Harrison -- the defender who opened on Henderson -- to Alex Poythress to Willie Cauley-Stein was in one-on-one situations with him.

"That's what I really take pride in is guys think that because I'm so long and tall that I can't guard them," said Cauley-Stein, who found his December form with 17 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. "And when I do guard them it's like, you kind of peep them after a dead ball and they look at their coach like, 'What do I do? Like I can't get past him and I can't shoot over him so what am I supposed to do?' "

The approach worked as planned, but that wasn't the only reason Coach Cal implemented it.

"It makes us communicate, and that's why I wanted to do it as much as anything else," Calipari said.

With a group of players that too often falls into the trap of focusing on individual play, Calipari knew the defensive scheme he drew up against Henderson would fall flat on its face if the Cats didn't forget all that.

"When you do what we did today, they've got to talk," Calipari said. "Because you can't start switching like we did and do the things we did unless everyone talks."

Successfully putting the game plan into action was just another step in the evolution of the youngest team in the country.

"For the last week, all we've been doing is recognizing teammates doing things well, and they had to verbalize it," Calipari said. "So if a guy got a good rebound or dove on the floor, nice pass or made a shot, I needed to hear a bunch of guys saying, "Hey, Willie, great," because I'm trying to get their emotions out of their offense and how they're playing."

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The game was more of a contest than many of us thought it would be.

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