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."
Trey Lyles will return to his hometown for UK's Champions Classic matchup with No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday in Indianapolis. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Kentucky is for a step up in competition on Tuesday.
It's no slight to Grand Canyon or a Buffalo team that outplayed UK for 20 minutes, but Kansas is at a different level.
Entering the test against the Jayhawks, John Calipari sees two ways it can go.
"If we play like we did in the first half last game we will get smashed," Calipari said. "If we play like we did in the second half we have a chance because you have to fight on every possession."
UK got a lesson in exactly that in the aforementioned matchup with Buffalo.
The Cats (2-0) went into the break down 38-33, needing halftime to refocus after a first half in which Coach Cal said they were "disconnected." UK would overcome the slow start with a dominant second half, holding Buffalo to 14 points in four field goals in a 71-52 win.
Ahead of Tuesday's matchup with No. 5 Kansas (1-0) at approximately 9:30 p.m. in Indianapolis, the Cats know what's in store for them if they pull that Jekyll and Hyde act again.
"It is not like they didn't come to play; it was just that the other team came like a pack of hungry dogs," Calipari said. "Well, then you can't just say this is good enough. We are learning that. When we play with great energy and match the other team or go beyond the other team, we are long and athletic. But if they are blowing us out of the water with their energy it is going to look like it did."
Though Kansas doesn't match UK's depth, eight Jayhawks played 16 minutes or more in a season-opening 69-59 win over UC Santa Barbara, three of them freshmen and three sophomores. Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, both juniors, provide the experience for Kansas, while freshman Devonte' Graham came off the bench and led the Jayhawks with 14 points in 26 minutes.
"They are running their stuff," Calipari said. "They are doing a terrific job of doing what they do. I mean, they play a style and they play it well. They are playing hard and pressing and denying. They are pushing up on defense and trapping randomly at times. They are trapping pick and rolls. They are being very, very aggressive."
This marks the fourth edition of the State Farm Champions Classic and the second UK-KU matchup in the event, which Kentucky won 75-65 en route to the 2011-12 national title. Each of the last three years, Coach Cal talked of the Champions Classic game being too early for his young team. This year, he's singing a new tune.
"We are in a little different position than we have been in the past, where we have a brand-new team and trying to get your team together," Calipari said. "This team needs to be challenged to see where we are. This is going to be one of those kinds of games."
The stage, as well as the opponent, will dictate that.
The game will follow a matchup between No. 2 Duke and No. 19 Michigan State in a doubleheader played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers. It should come as surprise that both will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
"It's going to be crazy," Dakari Johnson said on Sunday. "I'm thinking it's going to be a big crowd. But we can't focus on the atmosphere. We have to go out there - it's two teams playing on the court - and we just have to compete."
Doing that will be even more of a challenge for freshmen Trey Lyles, who will be returning to his hometown to play in just the third matchup between ranked teams in college basketball this season and the first between top-five squads. Lyles will also be playing in the same building where he led Arsenal Tech to the first state title in the high school's history.
"It's been on my mind," Lyles said. "It's going to be fun. I get to play in front of family and friends. It's going to be a good time."
Managing emotions will be a challenge for Lyles, who's coming off a game in which he sparked a big second half with five points within a minute after halftime against Buffalo. He'll want to duplicate that effort on Tuesday without overdoing it.
"I just gotta go out there and do whatever is best for the team, playing defense and all that kind of stuff, whatever Coach asks of me," Lyles said. "It's just another game and we gotta approach it that way and approach it with a lot of energy."
UK lacked that energy in last year's Champions Classic, which led to a 10-point deficit within four minutes against Michigan State. The Cats return seven players who saw the floor in that game, but there's still no guarantee that translates.
"We could start out 10-0 the same way and it wasn't 10-0 we were up, it was 10-0 I had to call two timeouts to get it settled down," Calipari said. "I would hope these veterans understand what they are walking into, but teams are going to play like their life depends on it and we have to do the same."
As 2013-14 proved, these things don't happen overnight.
"Last year was, what, March 1 when we answered questions," Calipari said. "It took that long! There were five freshmen. 'Oh, but they're really good. You just roll out the balls. They should just win.' This stuff's hard, man. This stuff is hard. Now, I love it. I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't it any other way for our kids."
Part of Matthew Mitchell probably wouldn't mind waiting a while before taking on the challenge of facing a top-10 team.
A bigger part of him can't wait to welcome Baylor to Lexington.
"It's two of the top-rated teams in the country," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a great way for us to showcase Kentucky basketball. National television, a sold-out Rupp Arena. That's just nothing but a positive opportunity for you there."
UK (1-0) will welcome the Lady Bears (1-0) in the second game of the season for both teams on Monday at 7 p.m. Not only is it UK Hoops' annual Pack the House game in Rupp Arena, but ESPN2 will also be on hand to broadcast the game as part of the seventh annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. And with still more than 24 hours to tip-off, more than 21,000 fans have already snapped up tickets.
"If everybody that has a ticket shows up tomorrow night, it would be an outstanding atmosphere," Mitchell said. "We appreciate the folks supporting us. It ought to be a great atmosphere for college basketball tomorrow night."
A great atmosphere and, in all likelihood, a great game.
UK is ranked No. 11/10, while perennial power Baylor comes in at No. 8/9. The game will be the first in the country between top-15 women's teams this season, meaning it will be an early measuring stick for both.
"We have a big challenge ahead of us, very tough opponent," Mitchell said. "We have tremendous respect for Baylor. What a great program. They have some really tough players. Well coached and we know it will be a very tough challenge for us tomorrow night, but we're looking forward to taking the floor and seeing what we can do."
Baylor returns three starters from last year's Elite Eight team that UK twice faced. Last December, the Cats came out on top 133-130 in a quadruple-overtime thriller that set an NCAA record for points in a game. Four months later, Baylor eliminated UK in the Sweet 16.
UK won't have to contend with departed All-American Odyssey Sims, but Baylor still has still has Nina Johnson, the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Davis had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Lady Bears' 101-60 season-opening win over Oral Roberts.
"I think she is really the glue to that entire basketball team," Mitchell said. "I just think she is a terrific player and it is going to be very important for us to do a good job against her. And try to do everything we can to make sure that she doesn't have a monstrous night. She is an outstanding basketball player and she plays so tough."
Defending Davis might be important, but not as crucial as UK setting the game's tempo. At this early juncture, the Cats are still very much a work in progress in the half-court. For that reason, they have to turn the pace in their favor.
"We must make it a fast-paced game if we want any chance to win right now at this point in the season," Mitchell said. "We have got to get it going up and down."
If UK succeeds in doing that, the big Rupp crowd figures to enjoy it. For those who haven't yet bought tickets, there's another reason to do just that.
"Boy, we'd love to sprint to the finish and get this thing sold out tomorrow night," Mitchell said. "It would be a great thing for us."
Trey Lyles had 12 points, four rebounds and three assists in UK's 71-52 win over Buffalo on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After a lackluster first half, Kentucky trailed Buffalo by five points. The buzz on social media was that the platoon system that's defined the start of the season had met its end.
Even one of his assistants said it.
"Stop," Calipari told him, not revealing the coach's identity. "We're playing the way we play and we're figuring it out."
It was a good thing he stuck to his guns.
Coach Cal opened the second half with his second platoon as he has in two exhibitions and the season opener and the group responded. Riding a shot of energy from Trey Lyles, the Wildcats dominated the second half and moved to 2-0 with a 71-52 win over visiting Buffalo (1-1), allowing just 14 points on 4-of-19 shooting after the break.
Lyles got it started with a 3-pointer from the left wing. Moments later, he intercepted a pass near midcourt and raced to the rim for a thunderous dunk. In a matter of 42 seconds, he had erased that halftime deficit and breathed energy into the Rupp Arena crowd of 22,175.
"I just wanted to go out there and playing with energy in the second half and just try pick the team up, pick the spirits up," Lyles said. "That's what the second platoon was trying to do at the start of the second half."
For the game, Lyles would tie for the team high with 12 points, adding four rebounds, three assists and steal. The 6-foot-10 freshman came to Kentucky with a reputation as a rebounder and adept post scorer, but he's shown off a diverse game after returning from a foot injury that forced him to miss the summer and UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour.
"He's just learning to play fast, yet be in control," Calipari said. "He is a skilled 6-10, three/four. He can post you; he can make a jump shot. He's a pretty good passer."
Lyles was a power forward by trade before arriving in Lexington, but Kentucky's incredible post depth has moved him into more of a perimeter role. Working with and going up against a veteran teammate every day in practice, Lyles is finding his way.
"It's been an adjustment in practice and stuff like that, but I'm becoming more comfortable with it, me and Alex (Poythress) both," Lyles said. "Coach is really helping us and me and him are helping each other with playing it."
It's players like Dakari Johnson who have bumped Lyles to the three.
Johnson, along with Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, is one of the Cats standing 6-11 or 7-foot, and he joins Lyles on the second platoon. On Sunday, he also joined Lyles in providing a boost when his team badly needed it.
In spite of the new platoon system, Johnson played 26 minutes. He played more than that just once as a freshman. All the while, Johnson worked tirelessly, something he acknowledges he would not have been capable of before transforming his body this offseason.
"It just feels like while I'm out there I'm not getting tired as fast and I just try to get the crowd hyped and get my teammates hyped up, and that's what we did in the second half," Johnson said.
Johnson had nine points, 12 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and a steal, finishing a made free throw shy of what would have been his second double-double in as many games. He shot 3 of 6 from the charity stripe, leaving just one area for the sophomore to address.
"He fights," Calipari said. "He tries. He runs hard. He's giving everything that's in his body, and that's all you can ask as a coach."
The same can be said for another Wildcat who's pretty much Johnson's polar opposite when it comes to body type. Standing 15 inches shorter than Johnson, Tyler Ulis deftly ran the point, scoring 12 points, dishing six of UK's 17 assists and committing no turnovers.
Devin Booker, meanwhile, scored eight of his 10 points after halftime, meaning UK's top four scorers on Sunday came from the second platoon. That serves as proof that the platoon system is flexible enough to adjust on a game-by-game basis even though Calipari isn't going away from it.
If someone else is not playing well, they're going to be taken out," Calipari said. "If a unit is not playing well, I'll take them out. Every one of these kids had a chance. Now, if I had stuck with those first guys you never would've seen Trey, Devin, and Tyler do what they did. They all three played well today."
That wasn't the case for every Wildcat. Towns, for example, fouled out and scored just three points in 10 minutes of action, while Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting and one assist.
Those three figure to be among the players Coach Cal said he will summon for sit-downs before the Cats head to Indianapolis for an early-season marquee matchup with No. 5 Kansas. The conversations will be candid, with Calipari asking them to assess how they played and what they learned from it.
But unlike in prior seasons, the talks won't have as much urgency about them, not with the way Coach Cal's group is built.
"It's a great team for all these guys to just play hard," Calipari said. "Even if you don't play well, we're all right. Someone else will step in and be better the next game. Learn from it."
Arin Gilliland converts the first penalty of the shootout. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
There was a big "red wall," and the Kentucky women's soccer team couldn't quite break it down. Such was the way UK head coach Jon Lipsitz described playing against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Saturday's first-round NCAA Tournament game.
The match unfolded in one of the scenarios you really only see in soccer.
One team dominates, so much so that the other side gives up on trying to score, yet the result is a tie. And not only that, but then determining the winner comes down to a 50/50 lottery.
Such was the case under frigid conditions at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer complex. The Wildcats won, 4-2, in the penalty shootout after the game ended tied 0-0 through 90 minutes and two overtimes, but advancing to the final 32 in the NCAA Tournament was no easy task.
By any measure Southern Illinois University Edwardsville parked the proverbial bus.
And as many times as UK's offensive attacks created cracks in the wall, the Cats could not break through.
The Wildcats didn't play poorly; in fact they created a massive quantity of chances. Thirty-one shots, eight of them on goal, another shot that agonizingly went off the cross bar and 17 corners, but UK couldn't score over 110 minutes so the game went to penalties.
"People will look at it and say how did you not score? Well we had 18 shots in the second half and nine corners," Lipsitz said. "They had two back saves, we had a ball literally on the line. I mean, that is frustrating but at the same time you know what I am going to say to my team? I thought we acted very well after halftime and played very well.
"Got ourselves more than enough opportunities and it was not like the first half where I thought we weren't really creating enough opportunities. In the second half and overtime, I thought we played extremely well. We created great opportunities in the box where we just missed or they blocked a lot of shots. Credit to them and obviously we are going to work on some finishing and cleaning things up in the box this week."
So a win or go home NCAA Tournament First-Round game came down to the lottery that is penalties.
Despite all but giving up on scoring after 60 minutes in a 90-minute game, the Ohio Valley Conference's SIUE had just as good a chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament as a nationally seeded Kentucky.
That said, the likes of Arin Gilliland would not let the season end.
The cliche of a senior standout performer living to fight another day in the NCAA Tournament has been analyzed many times, and Gilliland seemed to perpetuate that recurring storyline on Saturday.
Gilliland took a knock to her foot in last Sunday's Southeastern Conference championship game against Texas A&M, and the injury seemed to limit her against SIUE. But the pain apparently wasn't enough to keep her from creating UK's two best chances of the night, and expertly convert UK's first penalty of the shootout.
"(Arin Gilliland) steps up and hammers home the first one," Lipsitz said. "And she got really beaten up in the Texas A&M game less than a week ago believe it or not. I had to actually ask her 'can you take a PK?' because of her foot. She looked right at me and said 'I am taking a PK.' OK she is taking a PK.
"But I literally had 2, 3, 4, and 5 written down and I did not have a No. 1 shooter written down because I didn't know this morning when I was doing this if Gilly would be able to shoot or not. So I am proud of our toughness and our ability to just stick to the plan to the details necessary and find a way to advance."
The way Gilliland converted the penalty -- hammered into the top-left corner of the goal at a pace that made the shot unstoppable -- spoke to her determination. To inspire her team to victory, to play through pain and just to keep her college career going.
Such determination could also be attributed to UK freshman goalie Taylor Braun. The shot stopper ended the shootout with a diving stop, giving the Wildcats an unsurmountable 4-2 advantage.
But to be as focused as she was all game, and more importantly in the shootout, after never seriously being troubled or even having an opposing player come within 30 yards of her over 110 minutes of open-field action was commendable.
As well as Braun, and Gilliland and the rest of the Wildcats did in keeping focus and making the plays needed to win, their performances were in keeping with a saying that has become something of a mantra for Lipzitz and his Wildcats.
They were doing their "jobs."
For Gilliland it was leading, if only by example if not by scoring the first penalty. And for Braun it was making just one save in a shootout where UK's players were a perfect 4-of-4 on their kicks.
"Through the game, it's important as a goalkeeper, even when you're not getting any action, that you're still getting work, to stay focused and continue doing the details and communicating throughout the whole thing," Braun said. "It's easy to get disengaged when there is not much action. Going into PKs, I got excited, because I'm confident in my team and the way that we practiced them and the way that we handle pressure situation.
"I just knew that we were going to come out with a win after. I love pressure. I knew that all I needed to do was save one, like Jon said. Just do your job, just save one. That's what I did tonight, and it felt great to pull it out."
UK's next "job" will be to prepare for a Friday 3 p.m. ET Second-Round NCAA Tournament matchup with Arizona State in Charlottesville, Va.
UK lost to Tennessee on Saturday at Neyland Stadium, 50-16. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even though Kentucky hadn't played the kind of game he demands, Mark Stoops stepped to the podium and offered an objective assessment of his team.
At a moment when the competitor inside him surely wanted to be angry, Stoops was calm.
"It's not easy," Stoops said. "Nobody likes to lose. Our fans don't ... and nobody likes to lose. It's not fun."
UK (5-6, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) fell at Tennessee (5-5, 2-4 SEC) on Saturday, 50-16. The outcome, no question, was disappointing, especially after the Wildcats jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a field goal on their first drive. The Volunteers were dominant, rolling up 511 yards to UK's 262.
"Give Tennessee credit," Stoops said. "They beat us. They outcoached us, outplayed us. They were very prepared, very energetic. They had two weeks to prepare and did a heck of a job."
The Cats, on the other hand, played their eighth game in as many weeks. Seven of the games have been against SEC opponents, taking a toll on a young team still building depth.
"I'm proud of this team, and that's hard to say. ... They did some good things," Stoops said. "We're 5-6 and we're in the middle of a tough stretch right now. I don't think -- and I would never say this before the game, and I'm never gonna give an out for any of us -- we didn't have a lot in our tank.
In spite of that, UK turned in a solid week of preparation for a trip to Knoxville, Tenn. Unfortunately, it didn't translate on game day,
"I have no problem with our team's attitude and their effort," Stoops said. "And some people may have a hard time understanding that when you get beat (50-16). But I really do. I think our guys really want to play well. I thought they really prepared well, really tried to come in with a good mindset, and really I thought gave good effort."
Best demonstrating that effort on offense was wide receiver Javess Blue, who became the 23rd player in school history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards. The senior had six catches for 131 yards, including grabs of 39 and 30 yards to set up UK's lone touchdown.
"My mindset was trying to get this team a (win), but at the same time we all ... played a part in this game," Blue said.
Blue added a 23-yard catch on the final drive of the first half, making a heads-up play when he kneeled with two seconds on the clock to allow UK to call a timeout and attempt a long field goal. Austin MacGinnis would capitalize, setting a school record with a 54-yard kick and making him one of three kickers nationally with three field goals of 50 yards or longer.
"When I went out there, I didn't even know how long it was or that it was for the school record," MacGinnis said. "I knew Coach Stoops called field goal to end the first half and I am just blessed that it went in."
The kick gave UK a measure of momentum heading into the halftime locker room, momentum Tennessee would quickly reclaim by scoring on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.
Even so, Josh Forrest and Bud Dupree continued to battle. Forrest, a junior linebacker, had 20 tackles, while Dupree had a career-high 15, including a sack and two tackles for loss.
"It shows that we don't quit," Forrest said. "That's the whole thing: We try not to quit and keep making plays when we had to, winning our one-on-ones."
But on this night, the Cats didn't win nearly enough of them, serving as a reminder of the work ahead for a program that has already exceeded its win total from the previous two seasons combined in 2014.
"We need to be more physical," Stoops said. "We need to recruit and develop. ... It's hard. Things don't happen overnight. We need to continue to pound the weight room, we need to continue to recruit and get our players better and bigger. One thing I'm noticing in this stretch and I think y'all can see it too: We need to be more physical. We need bigger."
Even more immediately, UK needs to be healthier.
The Cats have an open date and two weeks to rest before their season finale, a trip to Louisville. That figures to benefit Patrick Towles -- who briefly departed with an ankle injury in the first half before returning -- and numerous other players nursing bumps and bruises.
"Our guys are banged up," Stoops said. "They need a couple days to decompress here a little bit and get a little energy back in their step. Physically and mentally just recharge a little bit."
Once they recharge, the Cats will shift their focus entirely to a matchup with their archrivals. By now, they would have liked to have picked up that sixth win and locked up bowl eligibility, but that wasn't in the cards. Now they have one last shot to do it against the Cardinals.
"It will be a great atmosphere that game," Dupree said. "It would be a great time to take back over the state. With a win, who wouldn't want to beat Louisville to go to a bowl game? We just gotta make it happen."
Willie Cauley-Stein had 12 points, five rebounds and four blocks in UK's season-opening win over Grand Canyon on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari isn't known for his brevity, but it took him only nine words to sum up Kentucky's season opener.
"First half was good," Calipari said. "Second half was not good."
The first half saw UK suffocate Grand Canyon defensively and build a commanding 43-16 lead. The Wildcats (1-0) held the Antelopes (0-1) to 25 percent shooting and forced 13 turnovers. In the second half, Grand Canyon refused to back down, actually outscoring UK by two points through the first 13-plus minutes before the Cats finished strong for an 85-45 victory.
"I think the first half we played at a pretty good level," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who was all over the floor with 12 points, five rebounds, four blocks and two steals, 'and then the second half we kind of let go of the rope a little bit and didn't play as physical and as determined."
The physicality is what most caught Coach Cal's attention.
"The other thing that happened is it got physical and it became a little bit of a fight," Calipari said. "We had guys not be able to make plays. They walked, missed one footers when things got physical. That's going to be an issue for us."
On offense, the failure to respond to physicality manifested itself in post-ups that came too far away from the basket, which led to those misses from around the basket. With their depth, size and athleticism, the Cats were often able to grab their own misses, to the tune of 24 offensive rebounds and a 51-21 overall rebounding edge, but the issue remains.
On defense, UK struggled guarding dribble penetration after the break, which was clear within minutes. The second platoon of Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson, which held GCU scoreless in the first half, allowed six points on the first four possessions of the second half. Immediately, Coach Cal called for the first platoon to check back in.
"They came in, they scored too many buckets on us," Ulis said. "Like you said, we kept them to scoreless in the first half, but the second half we came out a little lazy. We got stuck on defense and they hit a couple (shots) on us. So he wanted to make an example and told us we would sit if we don't get stops."
It was the first of many lessons for the three freshmen on the second platoon. Minutes later, UK's fourth freshman, Karl-Anthony Towns, got a similar lesson when Coach Cal pulled him Johnson after a lapse of focus that led to a turnover.
Playing with a big lead, it turns out, isn't always easy.
"That's what we need to work on," Ulis said. "We have to come out still ready to fight. Just look at it as the score is zero to zero, just try to go out there and play and keep the pressure on."
Cauley-Stein is in his third year playing for Coach Cal and he's still working to put that message into action.
"It's tough," Cauley-Stein said. "And if you're young it makes it worse because you're not used to that. You're not used to playing at a level that Coach wants you to play at all the time. It just comes with the experience of playing the college-level game. As you get older, you realize what Coach is saying. It will just come."
The Cats experienced a measure of the adversity Coach Cal said they needed in that second half, which only figures to help as UK takes the floor again on Sunday at noon against Buffalo and then on Tuesday against No. 5 Kansas in the Champions Classic.
"They came out, they punched us in the mouth the second half, but we just have to keep going, learn from our mistakes and improve," Ulis said.
Cauley-Stein, however, says the real learning won't happen until later. He remembers last year's game against Michigan State well, when the Cats fell behind by double digits before the even scored a point.
"Once it gets harder, then dudes are going to find out that it's real, it's the whole game," Cauley-Stein said. "Especially if you come out flat and you get hit in the mouth first, it's rough. It's going to be a rough game after that. So you've got to come out and throw the first couple of blows and let them know you're here and you're going to find the rest of the game."
Even so, seeing what can happen when an opponent outmuscles them was a good learning experience for the Cats.
"It's good that it happened because we were able to talk about it and we'll show it on tape tomorrow," Calipari said.
And when you have a roster like Coach Cal does, you get to teach from the tape of a 40-point win.