Janee Thompson had a team-best 15 points in UK's 91-62 win over Morehead State on Wednesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
Even though Kentucky was nine points away from scoring in triple figures Wednesday afternoon, no one player poured in more than 15 points individually.
Only four points separated the Wildcats' leading scorer, Janee Thompson, from its fourth leading scorer, Azia Bishop. In UK's 91-62 win over in-state foe Morehead State, cohesive teamwork was the key to victory.
"We don't just play five people," Thompson said. "Everybody is going to play, and that makes it that much easier for us when we get out on the floor."
Thompson, a 5-foot-7 point guard from Chicago, has accepted an increased leadership role through the first three games of her junior season.
"The position of point guard, it is a positional leadership role," said head coach Matthew Mitchell. "People are looking to you as a point guard to be a leader, and sometimes you get true leadership and sometimes you get positional leadership. (Thompson) is really truly leading and I am very excited about that."
Committing zero turnovers in Wednesday's victory in front of 5,923 fans in Memorial Coliseum, including 1,500 sixth graders there for "Class of 2021 Day," Thompson scored 15 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting from the free-throw line, but received substantial help from the two remaining thirds of Kentucky's three-headed point guard assault. Senior Jennifer O'Neill recorded 14 points and six rebounds, while sophomore Makayla Epps stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench.
"Jennifer has an excellent attitude right now," Mitchell said. "So our leadership is doing really great. Even Makayla Epps (has) a great attitude right now. I am happy with that. We need that."
"I think the three of us--myself, (O'Neill), and Epps--have a really good relationship," Thompson said. "(We) are really starting to understand what Coach Mitchell is looking for and what our team needs from us."
From all five positions on the floor, No. 9 Kentucky (3-0) completely dominated its opponent from the Ohio Valley Conference. The Wildcats' starting frontcourt of Bishop and sophomore Kyvin Goodin-Rogers pulled down 11 and nine rebounds, respectively. As a team, UK outrebounded the Eagles 55-35.
"We love going out there and playing hard, and getting rewarded for the hard work we have put in in practice," Thompson said. "We work extremely hard every day, and to be able to see that stuff come out when we play on the floor is great for us."
Thompson's former high school teammate, current sophomore guard Linnae Harper, contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes off the UK bench. Along with Bishop, Harper was one of two Cats to log a double-double.
"We aren't going to be the most talented team around, but our intangibles can be really high," said Mitchell. "If we can work together and the sum be greater than the parts, we can really do some things."
After three games over the course of six days, Kentucky has until Saturday to relax and reflect on the season's hot start. The Wildcats will travel to Mount Pleasant, Mich., for 2014-15's first road matchup with the Chippewas of Central Michigan.
UK posted 11 blocks in a dominant 72-40 win over Kansas on Tuesday in the Champions Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Rock Chalk, Jay blocked.
In a defensive performance for the ages -- at the very least, the best of the John Calipari era -- top-ranked Kentucky bludgeoned No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday in one of the most shocking outcomes of two top-five opponents in recent memory.
The Cats, who very much looked like the No. 1 team in the country in Indianapolis on Tuesday -- which is saying something considering the way Duke played in the first game -- denied everything Kansas tried to do offensively.
UK blocked as many shots (11) as Kansas made field goals, held the Jayhawks to 19.6 percent shooting and sent KU home to Lawrence with its worst loss of the mighty Bill Self era.
Tuesday's outcome was so hard to believe, so dominating and so demoralizing for Self that he sat at the podium in his postgame press conference, opened a bottle of water and wished it was something other than H20.
"I was hoping that was vodka," Self said. " ... Somebody's going to have to be special a certain night for them to get knocked off."
Special is the only way to sum up Kentucky's defensive effort Tuesday night.
For all the platoon talk coming into the UK-Kansas matchup, the difference in the Champions Classic nightcap wasn't platoons, depth or talent -- though they all played a factor of superiority against the Jayhawks.
It was length.
It was defense.
It was a relentless effort to allow nothing near the hoop.
"We were good today," John Calipari said in the understatement of the early season. "What we did was we defended, and it makes your offense a lot easier when you guard the way we did."
Quite frankly, UK's offense vs. Kansas was just OK. Coach Cal tweeted after the game that it was "average."
The numbers - 43.1 percent from the field - don't lie.
But average will be more than enough if Kentucky can continue to put together a half like it did in the second 20 minutes against Kansas when it gave up just 10 points and three field goals.
Or a half like it did in the first 20 minutes when it blocked eight shots.
Or a half like Sunday's against Buffalo</a> when it surrendered just 14 points and four field goals.
Or a half like the first one of the season</a> when it allowed only 16 points to Grand Canyon.
It's become pretty obvious through the first three games of the season that when the Cats decide they want to lock in defensively, they're nearly unbeatable.
"It's just energy," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who was credited with one of UK's 11 blocks. "You can tell the games we don't play like that - the games we're not playing up on the ball, hard and bothering the ball."
When the Cats play like they do Tuesday, it reminds Calipari a lot of his defensively nasty UMass teams.
"We had games where we shot under 40 percent and won, which means you're guarding," he said.
Kentucky's defense was so good in Indy that the Cats would have only lost by two points if they had been shutout in the second half.
Not only did UK deliver Kansas the worst loss of the Self era, it also held the Jayhawks to their lowest field-goal percentage (.196) under Self, their fewest field goals made (11) and their fewest points scored (40).
Over the final 12:30 of the game, Kentucky didn't allow Kansas a single field goal. In the first 5:21 of the second half, the Cats kept the Jayhawks off the scoreboard altogether.
(This is the part where we remind you that this was against the No. 5 team in the country and college basketball's second-winningest program of all time).
"We didn't have a whole lot of breakdowns," Calipari said. "What we did is we really covered for each other. We had the helper helping the helper."
Even when Kansas got the ball into the lane and appeared to have a clean look, UK would contest it with a foul. Hey, when you've got 10 guys at your disposal, you can afford a few fouls. Get knocked around enough - and never see the ball actually go through the hoop - and the rim starts to play mind tricks with you.
"It's nice when you have guys like Willie and Marcus Lee who can go guard guards," Coach Cal added. "So now if there's a switch or something or someone's open, they just go out and guard the guy."
Kentucky can attack defensively because - wait for it - the platoons. Playing in four-minute bursts has allowed the Cats to go at maximum effort on the defensive end.
As a result, UK has blocked 28 shots on the season, forced 49 turnovers and held its three opponents to a dismal 28.0-percent clip from the field.
"What I can't tell you is the kind of kids we have," Calipari said. "Couldn't do what we're doing. There's no way if we didn't have solid, selfless kids to do what we're doing and giving them half a game. We're playing them half a game and they're accepting it. Unless they allow us to do this, we can't do it. And that showed today what we're about."
The players buying into the system and sacrificing minutes has given Coach Cal the freedom to throw out relentless height. Kentucky's starting front line measures in at 7-foot, 6-11, 6-8, but unlike other teams when the subs come in, UK gets no shorter. When the reinforcements come in, as Calipari likes to call his second platoon, the three bigs go 7-0, 6-10, 6-9.
"You get long athletes that like to guard and they can cover up for mistakes as well as anybody that I've ever seen," Self said. Really, save for Tyler Ulis, all of UK's top 10 players are 6-6 are taller. With all that length, Coach Cal had planned on playing some zone against Kansas.
"And then the way we defended, I said, 'Nope, we're not playing any zone today,' " Calipari said.
Good call, Cal. There's no telling how many more blocks UK may have had.
UK blocked 11 shots and held Kansas to 19.6-percent shooting in a 72-40 win over Kansas on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Rarely, especially in recent years, has a Kentucky team been such a known commodity so early in the season.
With a group of returners from last year's national runner-up and the Big Blue Bahamas tour, UK fans and those who follow college basketball closely have had ample time to get to know the Wildcats, and remarkable hype has followed.
On Tuesday, anyone who didn't already know found out: These Cats, with those platoons, are a force to be reckoned with.
"We kind of bum-rushed them a little bit and every time they looked there were more tanks coming over the hill," Calipari said. "It wasn't substitutes; it was reinforcements. Here they come."
In the first top-10 matchup of the season, UK overwhelmed No. 5 Kansas in a 72-40 win that was just as one-sided as the final score suggested. In front of a national audience and a crowd of 19,306 in Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Cats dominated with the same combination of length, athleticism, experience and depth that sent them to the top of preseason polls.
After Kansas' Bill Self had coached against the Cats for 40 minutes, he stepped to the podium for his postgame press conference. Before he fielded the first question, he took a drink of water and found himself disappointed it wasn't another clear liquid in the bottle.
"I was hoping that was vodka," Self joked.
In a remarkably balanced effort, all 16 Wildcats - scholarship players and walk-ons alike - saw the floor. Dakari Johnson, showing off his leaner physique, was a go-to post presence, scoring a game-high 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Andrew Harrison joined him in double figures, scoring 10 points to go with four assists. With him running the show, UK committed just six turnovers against 15 assists as 12 players scored..
"Andrew Harrison was unbelievable today, his control of the game and how much energy he played with," Calipari said.
As good as Andrew Harrison was, it was UK's defense that was primarily responsible for handing Kansas its largest margin of defeat in Self's tenure on a night the Cats shot only 43.1 percent themselves. In really the only back-and-forth battle of the night, the race between UK's blocked-shot total and Kansas' made field goals ended in an 11-11 tie, meaning the Jayhawks shot just 19.6 percent from the field and managed 0.635 points per possession.
"I thought they were great," Self said. "You get long athletes that like to guard and they can cover up for mistakes as well as anybody that I've ever seen. They were really, really impressive."
By the end of the game, the Jayhawks were turning away from the paint rather than attempt to shoot over the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Marcus Lee, who had four blocks apiece. Willie Cauley-Stein, already sixth on UK's all-time blocks list, had just one, but affected many more in allowing not a single Jayhawk to score double figures.
"What we did is we really covered for each other," Calipari said. "We had the helper helping the helper. I mean, it was like, you know - and it's nice when you have guys like Willie and Marcus Lee who can go guard guards. So now if there's a switch or something or someone's open, they just go out and guard the guy."
Kansas' lone effective offensive stretch was over the final 6:54 of the first half, during which UK saw a 16-point lead cut to 38-28 at halftime. For the rest of the game's 33-plus minutes, the Jayhawks scored just 24 points, including a scoreless stretch of more than five minutes to open the second half.
It was UK's second platoon of Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Lee and Johnson that yielded most of the run to close the first half, but Coach Cal stuck with the plan and played the same group out of the break.
"I wanted to see," Calipari said. "And I wasn't changing the rotation. I mean, I went right with the rotation. The guys who finished the half who played poorly I started the second half because that's how we do it. We got 10 starters on this team."
That sounds great in theory, but even Coach Cal has admitted it's no guarantee the platoon system lasts through the season. All along, he's said it will be the players and their belief - or lack thereof - in the system that decide whether it does.
"What I can't tell you is the kind of kids we have," Calipari said. "Couldn't do what we're doing. There's no way if we didn't have solid, selfless kids to do what we're doing and giving them half a game. We're playing them half a game and they're accepting it. Unless they allow us to do this, we can't do it."
UK, in dominating a team expected to contend for a Final Four berth, took a big step toward instilling belief that the platoon system can work, and it happened two days after Buffalo led the Cats by five at half.
"I really love it," Towns said. "It gives everyone, like he said, a fair chance. But at the same time, ... it allows us to go hard all the time."
With no player on the floor for more than 21 minutes and all 10 original platoon members playing at last 17, the Cats could run to the point of exhaustion with no concern about conserving energy. As nice as depth is, it's the talent that comprises it that differentiates Kentucky.
"We've had teams where we've had good guys, but there's a chance you may have 10 guys that play in the league all in their platoon deal," Self said. "We've had some teams where you have four or five guys that may have a shot. So it's a little bit different being able to do that."
In spite of all that, Tuesday was still just one game in mid-November. Perhaps sensing what the performance would do to the hysteria already surrounding his team, Coach Cal tried to let a little air out of UK's rapidly inflating balloon.
"No, we're not that good," Calipari said. "Next question."
But maybe they could be down the line.
Coach Cal was sure to point out that UK's offense needs work, especially when opponents go to sagging zone defenses and force the Cats to hit from the outside. He also said the Cats need to run more motion offense and also involve Aaron Harrison more after the guard scored only eight points against Kansas.
"We got so much to figure out about this team it's not funny," Calipari said.
There's a flipside to that, and opposing coaches likely won't find it all that funny either.
"The only good news is when we come into town the other guy's gotta figure out two teams," Calipari said. "Like, alright, how are we preparing for this?"
The NBA Developmental League tipped off on Friday, giving a few more familiar faces a stage to showcase their abilities on the court.
There are currently four former Wildcats suiting up full time for D-League teams with the hopes of signing NBA contracts before the end of the season. Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague, who played significant roles in bringing Kentucky its eighth NCAA title, got off to very different starts over the weekend.
Lamb has established his role as the first scoring option for the Texas Legends, who started the season with a 2-0 record. The smooth shooting guard is averaging 22 points while shooting 63.6 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in his first two games.
Teague, on the other hand, is still finding his way into a consistent rotation for the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder's D-League affiliate. The former first-round draft pick is logging 19.2 minutes through two contests and is averaging eight points and four assists in the two games.
Another member of the 2012 national championship team at Kentucky, Eloy Vargas, has landed a spot in the D-League after competing in Spain's professional league last season
Vargas was drafted by the Los Angeles D-Fenders with the 17th overall pick in the annual D-League draft but was deactivated last Thursday leading up to the start of the season.
Ramon Harris, who graduated from Kentucky in 2010, is off to a very solid start for the Ft. Wayne Mad Ants. Although his team has dropped to 0-2 after the opening weekend, Harris has done an excellent job for the Mad Ants. The small forward is averaging 11 points and a team high 11.5 rebounds in his first two games.
James Young has spent the early portion of his professional career battling a host of minor injuries and dealing with an undisclosed illness in his family. In order to gain some real-time game action and work his way back into playing shape the Celtics have assigned Young to their D-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.
Young did not disappoint in his first game, scoring 21 points and grabbing five rebounds in all the minutes he could handle. The plan for Young is to get his legs back under him and to make an impact on the Celtics roster during the remainder of his rookie season.
NBA spotlights in week three (All stats through Sunday, Nov. 16)
Anthony Davis kept up his streak of domination in week three in the NBA. The All-Star forward is leading the way in MVP talks through the first 10 games of the season. Aside from a blowout victory over the Timberwolves on Friday in which he spent much of the second half on the bench, Davis led the Pelicans in nearly every statistical category.
The former Cat averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals and four blocked shots while seeing over 38 minutes of action per game.
DeMarcus Cousins posted three double-doubles in as many games this past week as he continues to make a strong case for All-Star honors in the Western Conference. Cousins, who is has entered the conversation for the top center in the league, is largely responsible for the turnaround in Sacramento. The Kings above .500 after the first 10 games this season for the first time in 10 years.
It comes as no surprise that point guard Rajon Rondo is leading the league in assists through the first three weeks of the season, averaging 11.6 dimes per game. Rondo posted a single-game mark of 16 assists on Friday, which stands as the current season high for the entire league.
Rondo averaged 13 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds in week three, coming dangerously close to a triple-double in two of the three games for Boston.
Week four TV Schedule
Tuesday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis, Darius Miller) @ Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) 10:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Five former Cats emerged victorious in NFL Week 11, including one UK alumnus who signed to an active NFL roster just last week. Alfonso Smith, a former Kentucky running back who went undrafted in 2010, re-signed with the San Francisco 49ers after falling casualty to the team's final roster cuts in training camp. Smith spent his first four seasons as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.
Cats in the Spotlight Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (7-3) While Cobb failed to reach the end zone for only the second time all season (snapping his six-game TD streak), the fourth-year wide receiver still managed to haul in a season-high 10 catches for 129 yards. The red-hot Packers rolled over the Philadelphia Eagles, 53-20. Jacob Tamme | #84 TE | Denver Broncos (7-3) Like Cobb, Tamme was able to record a season-high number of receptions without scoring a touchdown. The Danville, Ky. native caught four passes for 31 yards in a 22-7 upset loss to the St. Louis Rams. Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-8) Once again, Williamson shined while the Titans were defeated. The rookie linebacker combined for eight tackles (two solo, six assisted) and logged two sacks on Monday Night Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers bested Tennessee by a score of 27-24.
Jennifer O'Neill hit her first and only 3-pointer with 1:17 left in UK's comeback win over Baylor on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Good teams, they just keep on playing.
Good shooters, they just keep on shooting.
When Kentucky found itself down 14 early in the second half against perennial power and top-10 Baylor, the Wildcats refused to go away.
"It was a very, very poor start to the game, and we came back and really played a tough 20 minutes there in the second half, and I'm very proud of them," Matthew Mitchell said.
When Jennifer O'Neill had the ball in her hands having missed her first 10 3-point tries but with a chance to take the biggest shot of the night, she did.
"Really my teammates had a lot of belief in me and told me to keep shooting and fed me the ball," O'Neill said. "So I was going to keep shooting.
Even though she was aware she had missed her first 10 tries from deep, O'Neill followed through on that when she received a pass from Makayla Epps with 1:17 left. With UK having overcome that deficit to claim a one-point lead, O'Neill rose and fired from the right wing.
"I told her, 'I was going to keep feeding you regardless,' " said Epps, who had 12 points and eight rebounds. "She's the best shooter on the team. We don't play here often. We play here one time a year. So shots are going to fall; shots aren't going to fall. I had the utmost belief in her and I knew that once she got hot she was going to hit."
She did, sending an announced crowd of 22,075 into a frenzy and giving UK (2-0) a four-point lead the Cats wouldn't relinquish in a 74-64 win over No. 8/7 Baylor (1-1). In doing so, UK picked up the first top-10 win of the season and completed the 10th-largest comeback in program history with a 50-point second-half outburst.
"That's a great win for us," Mitchell said. "We have a long way to go as a basketball team, but learned a lot tonight, have a lot of room for improvement, but it's great to get into an atmosphere like this."
Whatever UK becomes as a team, O'Neill will play a key role. The senior guard, who finished with 22 points 11 months after dropping a school-record 43 against Baylor, better keep shooting if the Cats' fast-paced offense is going to work.
"They were running back to a packed lane and we were shooting in rhythm wide open 3-point shots, and our offense, we have to shoot that shot, and Jennifer is a great shooter and has been shooting the ball great," Mitchell said " ... I have no idea if she's missed them, made them. I'm just coaching every play, and I was telling her every time out to keep shooting the ball."
O'Neill was 0 for 6 from 3 and 1 of 8 overall in the first half, but she was hardly the only reason UK went into the locker room trailing 34-24.
"I give our team a lot of credit because I'm telling you, it was not good in the first half, as you all could see," Mitchell said. "It was disjointed, there was no rhythm, there was no focus offensively, there was no execution."
Due to that lack of execution, the Cats shot just 30 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers. Linnae Harper was the lone bright spot, scoring nine of her 11 points to help keep UK within striking distance.
"I think in the first half Kentucky beat Kentucky," Epps said.
There would be no repeat performance in the second half, though the Lady Bears scored six of eight points out of the break to take that 14-point lead.
"I think going into the second half Matthew had said enough about what we did in the first half, so we knew what we had to do," O'Neill said. "Yeah, we were aware that we were down, but the game wasn't out of reach."
Climbing their way out of a big hole, the Cats were buoyed by a crowd that never gave in either. Thousands filled Rupp in spite of freezing temperatures and snow and they weren't about to go down without a fight.
"When you are emotionally down," Mitchell said, "when you're playing not well and you're sort of clearly discombobulated, and we, I thought, were lacking energy and emotion there as we were starting to decline in the first half, there's no question for us, once we started playing with some energy and the crowd responds, it pumps you up."
UK will count on its home crowd one last time on Wednesday at 11 a.m. against Morehead State before four games away from Lexington, first at Central Michigan and then for games against Illinois, Oklahoma and South Florida as part of the Paradise Jam Island Tournament.
For all those games, the Cats will look to do what they did on Monday: combine winning and learning.
"Just the way the schedule hits us now, we don't have a lot of practice time, so we've got to make the most of our time here and try to get a little bit better and see if we can win some games while we're still learning," Mitchell said. "But that's why this one is so big and such a great win that will still show up at the end of the season, but we're not a finished product."