Willie Cauley-Stein had a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks in UK's 63-51 win over Texas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In the midst of an offseason of unprecedented hype, there was one question John Calipari kept asking because he wasn't sure of the answer.
You see, he remembered the two national championship games he's coached in the last three seasons. He remembered how the outcome was decided.
"When we played Connecticut, who was the best player on the court? (Shabazz Napier) And that's why they won," Calipari said in a preseason interview. "When we played Kansas in that final game, who was the best player on the court? (Anthony Davis) My guy. And we won."
The question, then, as UK worked toward another trip to college basketball's biggest stage bearing a preseason No. 1 ranking, was whether the Wildcats would have such a player when the games got big. Immediately, a candidate, Willie Cauley-Stein, came to mind.
"So now, on this team, when we play in that kind of game, are they going to have a player better than we have?" Calipari said. "And so who would that be? Can it be Willie?"
It's still only December, but Cauley-Stein answered resoundingly yes in No. 1 Kentucky's first close game of the season, a 63-51 win over No. 6 Texas on Friday night in Rupp Arena.
"He was ridiculous today," Calipari said.
Ridiculous to the tune of a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks as UK (8-0) survived what Texas head coach Rick Barnes aptly termed a "big-boy game."
"It was crazy," said Alex Poythress, who had eight points of his own. "He was everywhere blocking shots, getting steals, offensively he was real good at getting rebounds. It was the best I've ever seen him out there."
"He affected the game in every way he could affect it," Barnes said.
The game was one in which Cauley-Stein would likely have struggled in his first two seasons. He would often dominate against smaller opponents, but not in more bruising contests. The messages Calipari delivered about staying low and negating physical play just weren't sinking in, at least not until recently.
"The biggest thing was before I wasn't seeing success at it. So I'm like, 'Why do I gotta play like this? I'm not even seeing success.' I started seeing success at it and I'm like, 'Well...' "
The Longhorns came close to matching UK's incredible size and strength inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound, but the junior 7-footer didn't back away from the challenge. Cauley-Stein called the matchup one between two teams with the top bigs in the country, and he was the best of the bunch.
Not only did he sky for rebounds, swoop in for blocks and streak into passing lanes for steals as he's become known for, he was also UK's primary offensive option, even in the clutch.
After battling to a 26-26 halftime draw, the Cats came out of the locker room fired up and used an 18-2 run to build what appeared to be a safe lead considering the suffocating defense they were playing and had played all season. Instead, the Longhorns charged back, twice cutting UK's lead to five points in the final five minutes.
Both times, it wasn't Aaron Harrison, he of the game-winning 3-pointers, who stepped up. It was Cauley-Stein.
The first, with 4:19 left, came when Cauley-Stein grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Tyler Ulis. In one motion, he gathered himself and rose again for a basket.
"I've just been working on that shot and working on those shots in the paint," Cauley-Stain said. "They just played off me the whole time so I just shot it."
Minutes later, Cauley-Stein scored five points in a row with three made free throws in four tries and an alley-oop from Andrew Harrison on which he jumped and seemed to keep rising to bump UK's lead back to double digits.
"I've just been working on my game so the confidence is going to continue to come the more and more I work on it," said Cauley-Stein, who played 33 minutes, the most for any UK player this season. "That's just the biggest thing, is doing it. Tonight I just did it."
Unsurprisingly, his performance drew rave reviews from all around, including ESPN NBA Draft guru Chad Ford. Cauley-Stein would have been a lottery contender had he not defied expectations and left UK last spring, but he opted to return. He's looking like a smart man after being the best player on the floor in a game that featured more than a few future pros.
"That's one of the biggest reasons why I came back is just to develop myself more as a basketball player," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like I'm starting to do that. And the good thing is I've got so much more time. It's only December. I've still got like three months of that."
Not all teams enter the NCAA Tournament carrying confidence and momentum.
That won't be an issue for the Kentucky Wildcats.
"I think they'll feel pretty good," UK head coach Craig Skinner said.
The Cats (26-5, 14-3 Southeastern Conference) enter the postseason with a No. 13 seed and the right to host yet again. They've won eight times in nine matches ahead of a first-round matchup with Oakland (22-9, 12-2 Horizon League) at 7:30 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. The victor will advance to face either Ohio State or Lipscomb at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
"With 26 wins and beating a lot of good teams this year, playing 10 matches that are already in this tournament I think gives us an understand and appreciation of the level we need to play at to advance," Skinner said, "We've been practicing really well and I think the energy and the confidence is in a good place."
The confidence is no accident, as UK has rebounded successfully after two losses in three matches against LSU and Texas A&M. Since then, the Cats have lost just five sets in their last 30 tries to claim the best NCAA Tournament seed in school history behind SEC Libero of the Year Jackie Napper and four more all-league performers.
"It's a tribute to our players, who had a great regular season and several all-conference award winners and just to me and especially our young players the most exciting time to be participating in this sport," Skinner said. "So we're excited to have Oakland here and especially Lipscomb and Ohio State competing in the first match and with the winners competing Saturday. I just can't wait to get on the floor and get after it."
Skinner and the Cats are excited, but that doesn't mean they don't fully grasp the challenge ahead of then. Oakland has four players averaging better than 2.3 digs per set, representing a departure from the typical first-round opponent for a nationally seeded team.
"Typically a team like Oakland has a couple players that dominate," Skinner said. "Oakland's a team that has four or five players that really make an impact in the match and so we have to have a great game plan to know what they're going to do against us and how to defend their players because they are uniquely balanced I think in that regard."
Fortunately for the Cats, they'll be performing in front of their home crowd. Other coaches might prefer to hit the road and play free of the added pressure that comes from playing in front of their home fans, but Skinner is eager for the chance to host another big crowd in Memorial.
"Some people might say it's a disadvantage because you've got a lot of distractions at home," Skinner said. "I think it's a great advantage because we do have our home fans."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers had a quiet trip to the beach last week, at least offensively.
Managing just nine points on UK's three-game voyage to the Virgin Islands, including just one in her final two games combined, Goodin-Rogers had gone cold after a strong start to her college career.
She had to come home to chilly Kentucky to heat back up.
Goodin-Rogers poured in a game-high 19 points, including 16 in the first half of an 82-64 Kentucky win over Northern Kentucky. In fact, she exceeded her previous career high less than eight minutes in.
"She was aggressive to start offensively and when she gets in a rhythm and can make some 3s for us and get to the basket and play with some energy offensively in transition, she can help us out," Matthew Mitchell said.
Goodin-Rogers was the star in an otherwise sluggish start for the Wildcats, who moved to 7-1 on Wednesday ahead of a Sunday trip to archrival Louisville. She scored 13 of UK's first 19 points to help build an early nine-point lead, capped by the first of her two 3-pointers.
She didn't waste any time surpassing her point total from the Virgin Islands games, but she also wasn't overly concerned about her offense from last week. Facing powerful front lines against the likes of Illinois and Oklahoma, she knew her role on UK's Thanksgiving trip.
"In the Virgin Islands I was more focused on defense than I was on offense because I needed to rebound more because the girls were so big," Goodin-Rogers said. "And tonight I was able to just play instead of focusing on one little thing."
Goodin-Rogers certainly played in her return to Memorial Coliseum, but she and her fellow post players still have room for growth.
Among UK's regular interior rotation, only Azia Bishop had played a college game entering this season. As a result, Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alexis Jennings have suffered more than anyone from the game slippage that comes from so little early-season practice time with a packed schedule.
"We've just got to take advantage of some practice time and get better in the half-court," Mitchell said. "Our post players are seeing a lot of packed lanes and we're not reading those situations real well in the half-court."
That places an added importance on the three days of practice UK will have leading up to a matchup with No. 7 Louisville.
"I thought tonight we were a bit unfocused and we can't play our best when we play that way," Mitchell said. "We played well enough to win tonight and you can't take that victory away from us, but clearly we have to play much sharper. I think their confidence level can increase between now and then with some good practice."
John Calipari and Kentucky are off to a 7-0 start to the 2014-15 season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari has never been afraid to adapt his coaching style to fit his personnel. In his first five seasons at Kentucky, he's coached all manner of different teams.
His first group dominated with a combination of overwhelming talent, suffocating defense and brute force in the post. The next season he used more finesse, employing pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs to take a team to the Final Four.
Similar adjustments - and two trips to the national championship game - followed over the next three seasons, but a few statistical hallmarks have remained in place. In fact, that's true dating all the way back to Calipari's run at Memphis.
On offense, Coach Cal's teams sometimes play fast (2005-06 at Memphis and 2009-10 at Kentucky) and sometimes play slow (2010-11 and 2013-14 at UK). Sometimes they get it done by getting to the foul line in spite of mediocre field-goal shooting (2013-14) and sometimes by shooting well from the field and rarely turning it over (2010-11).
But almost without exception, Coach Cal's teams dominate on the offensive glass. Dating back to 2001-02 and including this season, Calipari's Memphis and UK teams have ranked in the top 30 nationally in offensive-rebounding percentage 10 times according to kenpom.com, the source for all statistics found in this story. Only once during that time period (2010-11, his most anomalous team before this season, but we'll get to that later), has a Calipari team ranked outside the top 75 nationally in offensive-rebounding percentage.
On defense, Calipari teams, above all else, contest shots well. Ten times in the last 14 season, Coach Cal's groups have ranked in the top 10 nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense, and never have they ranked worse than 53rd. Along those same lines, Calipari teams excel at shot-blocking. Remarkably, UK and Memphis have ranked in the top 15 nationally in block percentage in 12 consecutive seasons.
This season, UK is taking those three consistent traits - offensive-rebounding percentage, effective field-goal percentage defense and block percentage - to the extreme. The Wildcats, as of Dec. 2, rank first nationally in all three.
In that way, this is a typical Calipari team. In other ways, it's anything but.
Unprecedented depth has prompted Coach Cal to go to a much-talked about platoon system in which 10 players share minutes roughly equally. Logically, UK has rocketed to the top of the national rankings in bench minutes, ranking first with reserves playing 49 percent of available minutes this season. In his first five seasons in Lexington, UK ranked no higher than 160th nationally and lower than 300th three times.
The differences resulting from the platoons don't end there.
On offense, the system has led to passing unlike anything Calipari has coached in recent seasons. As good as they have been, Calipari's teams haven't typically registered high assist totals, which can be attributed in part to his Dribble Drive offense, which encourages passes that lead to driving opportunities.
This year has been a different story, with UK racking up 120 assists through seven games. The Cats have assisted on 59.7 percent of their made field goals this season (63rd nationally, highest for a Calipari team in more than a decade), up more than six percent from UK's previous season-high total under Calipari.
On defense, UK's depth has allowed the Cats to turn up their ball pressure. Whereas previous teams have been content to force opponents into tough shots and contest them rather than go for turnovers, this group is managing to do both.
UK has forced turnovers on 27.9 percent of its defensive possessions, good for ninth nationally. By comparison, the previous four UK teams have all ranked 293rd or worse in defensive turnover percentage.
It' bears mentioning it that the season is young and the competition will improve, meaning Coach Cal has plenty of time to do what he does and adapt. That said, it looks like he's coaching a different kind of team than he ever has.
Tyler Ulis had three of UK's season-high 12 steals in a win over Providence on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein heard all about LaDontae Henton.
Entering a matchup between Kentucky and Providence, the senior forward was averaging better than 24 points per game. John Calipari, knowing Cauley-Stein would shadow Henton to start, may have exaggerated the numbers just a bit.
"I was told he averaged 28, 30 points," Cauley-Stein said, drawing laughs from reporters surrounding him.
Whether it was 24, 28 or 30, Henton didn't come close on Sunday with Cauley-Stein - who had 11 points and six rebounds - guarding him. He managed only three points on 1-of-8 shooting, frustrated continually by Cauley-Stein during his 25 minutes and Marcus Lee during his 15. With Henton handcuffed, UK (7-0) surged past Providence (6-1) in a 58-38 slugfest that featured just 54 possessions, seven fewer than any of the Wildcats' first six games.
"It was a good game," Coach Cal said. "And they did what teams are going to do. They're going to try to move the ball, try to go into the shot clock, they're going to sag in a man or a zone, they're going to play like everybody else is going to play us."
It was no ordinary player who hounded Henton. Cauley-Stein may be a 7-footer, but he had no issues chasing the 6-6 Henton around the perimeter, leading Providence head coach Ed Cooley to call him a "one-man wrecking crew."
"I think they put probably one of the best defensive players I've seen in a long time in Cauley-Stein (on Henton)," Cooley said. "He's got quick feet, he's long, he jumps over mountains. It was a tough matchup."
That length and versatility might be the most eye-catching facet of UK's defense, which held an opponent to under 30-percent shooting for the fourth time this season, but both coaches agreed it was a player Cauley-Stein's polar opposite in size who flipped Sunday's game.
With the visiting Friars determined to play a half-court game and UK sluggish after a 6-0 burst to start the game, 5-9 Tyler Ulis checked in and made life miserable for anyone unfortunate enough to be guarded by him. In doing so, he drew comparisons to some rather talented Calipari players past.
"I've had three Chicago guys do what Tyler Ulis did today, which is change the game," Calipari said. "I had Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, and Tyler Ulis," Calipari said. "Very rarely do you see a guy walk in and just change the game. Like, change the whole flow of it. And he did that today."
Ulis' statistics hardly jump off the page. He finished with six points, three rebounds and his first-career block, but that hardly captures his impact.
"I think he's a special player," Cooley said. "He's got the 'it.' He's a player who I think you guys are going to see really grow. He does a good job guarding the ball, he's low to the ground and he's got some toughness. He's a player that has the ultimate 'it.' "
Ulis had three of UK's 12 steals and set the tone as the Cats forced 18 turnovers, boosting their season defensive turnover percentage to .271, ninth nationally. He was often assigned to point guard Kris Dunn, who played 29 minutes in spite of battling an ankle injury all week. Dunn had 10 turnovers on his own, a career high by a wide margin.
"Tyler played great defense," Andrew Harrison said. "He's really a pest on the defensive end, and that really picked up the energy of the team."
Harrison played a solid game of his own, posting six points, four assists and four steals in just 20 minutes. With UK's platoon system, which Calipari went away from in stretches for various reasons, the Cats look dangerous at every position. The two-headed point-guard monster of Harrison and Ulis has a strong argument as the scariest of the bunch.
"It's tough, especially when you go back and forth and you don't really get tired throughout the game, and you have to play with energy or Coach is going to take you out," Harrison said. "It would be hard."
UK's opponents so far this season would agree. The Cats have now won seven games by an average margin of 34.4 points and have not yet allowed a team to shoot 40 percent from the field. That adds up to holding opponents to 0.672 points per possession, a total good enough for second nationally behind only Louisville.
Alex Poythress, however, believes UK trails no one when it comes to picking out the nation's best defensive team.
"When we're all playing like we can, I feel like it's hard for teams to score on us," Poythress said. "We're so big, so long, so active, we can switch and really do anything we really need to do on defense."
UK lost to Louisville in its season finale, 44-40. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- A young UK football team spent the week watching clips of classic Governor's Cup games past to learn about the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry.
On Saturday, the Wildcats played in a classic of their own, though the result didn't go in their favor.
"I know people that paid to come watch this game got their money's worth," Mark Stoops said, "because that was a good football game."
In a back-and-forth affair that featured some pregame pushing and shoving and seven lead changes -- four in the fourth quarter alone -- UK (5-7) fell to rival Louisville (9-3), 44-40. The loss left the Wildcats a win shy of bowl eligibility.
"Obviously very disappointed in the outcome of this one, disappointed for our seniors to come up short in such an important game for us," Stoops said. "I was proud of the way our team fought. I felt like our guys played with great energy, great passion and really did a lot of good things. Give them credit, give Louisville credit: They made plays when they had to to win the football game and they beat us."
The thing is, the Cats made their share of plays too.
There were the two defensive touchdowns, the first scored on a 40-yard interception return by Fred Tiller and the second on a fumble forced by Bud Dupree that fellow senior Mike Douglas scooped and carried 30 yards for a touchdown. The plays gave UK leads in the second and fourth quarter, respectively, but Kyle Bolin (21-of-31 passing for 381 yards and three touchdowns) and DeVante Parker (six catches for 180 yards and three touchdowns) were too much to handle.
There were Stanley "Boom" Williams' two touchdowns - the second giving UK a 40-37 lead with just 5:31 to go - big fourth-quarter throws by Patrick Towles after a slow start and clutch catches by Demarco Robinson and Joey Herrick. The UK offense had a shot at game-winning play on its final drive, but Gerod Holliman tied an NCAA record with his 14th interception on a fourth-down pass by Towles to seal the outcome.
For Williams, who finished with 126 rushing yards to go with his two touchdowns, the day only served to make him eager to play in the game again.
"It's one of the biggest rivalries in college football history," Williams said. "It's real fun getting to play against crosstown rivals, going out there with my teammates and going to battle with those guys."
Unfortunately, Saturday will be the last time the group plays as currently constituted. Dupree, Za'Darius Smith and other seniors will move on to pursue professional careers, whether in football or elsewhere.
"It's very emotional," said Dupree, who had seven tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. "My last college game and I had a chance to win and just couldn't pull through. The team just has to learn from it for next year coming in."
Dupree's tone was the consensus among UK players and coaches: a combination of disappointment and looking to the future.
"Growing up a Kentucky fan, this is a game you dream about playing," said Towles, who was intercepted twice in 29 attempts in throwing for 176 yards against a tough Louisville defense. "And we had an opportunity and I didn't get it done today. We gotta go back to work so I will get it done next year."
This time next year, no one wants to be done playing football, but there's a certain satisfaction that comes with leaving everything on the field on the heels of two lopsided losses.
"I think it was important to come out and play against a very good football team on the road, with our rival," Stoops said. "We had lost some games. That was pointed out, and our guys responded and played a hard-fought game. We tried and competed at a high level."
The effort served as a reminder of the progress the Cats have made in Stoops' second season. Though the season ended with six losses in a row, UK won more games in 2014 than in the previous two seasons combined while also dropping tough battles to the likes of Florida, then-No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 22 Louisville.
"I don't think you can let the ending of the season cloud the progress that's been made," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.
"We've definitely made progress and the offseason starts tomorrow for us," Williams said. "We're going to get to work and we're just going to improve this offseason and get better and go into next season with a winning mentality, approach every game right."
While Williams and the UK returners are getting back to work, Dupree will be preparing for the NFL Draft, where he is projected as a first-round selection. He'll be following the program he helped begin to rebuilt nonetheless.
"I'm confident in Coach Stoops and the program and the staff members," Dupree said. "I see a bright future for this team, for this program and big-time recruits coming in. The only thing they can do is just keep going up. We've been to the bottom. The only thing they can do is keep going up."
Stoops, meanwhile, will hit the recruiting trail looking to finalize another good signing class. Reaching a bowl game would have been a boost, but the path forward remains the same.
"As you look at this season, I never hid from the fact that it was important to win one of these games down the stretch," Stoops said. "We didn't get that done. We'll continue to work. We'll reset ourselves and go back to work. But I am proud of this group. I'm proud of the seniors. I know we've improved."
UK will host Providence at 2 p.m. on Sunday in Rupp Arena. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Six games in, the Kentucky Wildcats have handled their business.
Save for a stray sluggish half here or there and that domination of Kansas, the Cats have comfortably dispatched opponents unable to cope with their size, talent and depth, saying the right things about taking it one game at a time along the way.
But now UK is in for a step up in competition. The Cats are excited for the challenge.
"We look at every game the same, but we know we have a lot of big games coming up that we have to get prepared for," Dakari Johnson said. "So we're going to have a great couple practices and just really go after it."
Five of UK's seven games over the next month will come against teams currently ranked the coaches' poll, starting with Providence (5-0) at 2 p.m. on Sunday. The Friars, fresh off an impressive neutral-court win over Notre Dame in which LaDontae Henton poured in 38 points, entered the poll this week at No. 25 with a home game against Yale on Friday before this weekend's trip to Rupp Arena.
"Watching them on tape, really doing a heck of a job of iso'ing guys and putting guys in (the) best positions to score," John Calipari said. "Playing extremely hard defensively. Playing both man-to-man and zone."
Coach Cal, who praised Providence head coach Ed Cooley as a "great coach that no one knows about yet," expects the Friars to show both man and zone, as well as some press. Providence has caused problems for opponents with its pressure so far this season, forcing 15.6 turnovers per game and ranking 43rd nationally in turnover percentage (.237).
Though guards Kris Dunn (averaging 7.4 assists) and Jalen Lindsey (7 of 14 from 3-point range) are dealing with injuries, the Friars will have Hinton, who is averaging 23.4 points and 5.8 rebounds. Providence is also the tallest team UK has faced to date, with 7-footer Carson Desrosiers in the starting lineup and 7-2 freshman Paschal Chukwu coming off the bench.
All that means Kentucky, which has won games by an average margin of 36.8 points (second nationally) and none by fewer than 19 points, could be in for its first tense moments in the final minutes this season. Coach Cal says his team needs exactly that kind of test, particularly of its offensive execution in such a situation.
"Well what we need is just a hand-to-hand kind of game where a team's not afraid of us, that they make plays and continue to make them throughout," Calipari said. "And then we got to understand, like, right now we're probably getting 16, 17 seconds a possession. There's got to be games where it's gonna be in the 20s. And that's gonna be as teams get better and you don't get it in transition and you don't get it and you got to pull it out.
"We're trying to create a great shot every time down, whenever that happens. Now, if it's a late game, we probably are using 25 seconds to 30 seconds before we do anything, unless it's a layup or a dunk."
Once again, the Cats are eager for the chance.
"A close game would put a little pressure on us, see how we respond to it, you know, test us, especially the freshmen, because we haven't been in that situation yet," Tyler Ulis said. "The other guys were here last year, so, you know, they've had that before, but for us it would be a lot of help."
Johnson trying to repeat UTA performance at the line
Johnson entered UK's game on Tuesday shooting 45.5 percent (50 of 110) from the free-throw line for his career.
All he did against UT Arlington was step up and bury of 12 of 14 tries.
That tells his coach something.
"If he went 12 for 14, it means he's capable of that," Calipari said. "So what gets in the way of him making 12 out of 14? It's those six inches between his ears."
Along those lines, Johnson didn't attribute his big night at the line, in which he scored in double figures even though he didn't register his lone field-goal attempt until the final minutes, to revamping his shot or anything mechanical.
"Just coming down to relaxing," Johnson said. "Just taking your time. Sometimes I rush them and think too much. Just relax and just shoot, shoot free throws."
Staying out of his own head isn't always easy, especially when he hears opposing players say Johnson going to the line is exactly what they want. However, he's not about to start talking trash when he proves them wrong.
"I don't do that," Johnson said. "Yeah, I go 12 out of 14. That's all I'm going to say."
The sophomore center will let his play do the talking. And if he keeps knocking down his free throws, he'll be playing plenty, and when it counts too.
"You're not going to be in late if you don't make free throws so I just try to get that down pat because I want to be in games late so I have to practice," Johnson said.
Calipari confirms UK-UCLA scheduling talks
ESPN's Andy Katz reported earlier this week that UK and UCLA are in talks regarding a two-year home-and-home series that would begin next season. Coach Cal confirmed as much on Friday, saying UCLA would fill the spot normally occupied by North Carolina in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons should talks result in a final agreement.
For those two seasons, UK and UNC will take a break from their home-and-home series, the reason being the Cats and Tar Heels will face off in Las Vegas as part of the 2016-17 CBS Sports Classic and continuing the series would throw off the home-road balance for the teams' schedules for those two years.
"This is all based on what we need," Calipari said. "Don't care about anybody else. You don't want to play us, listen, don't play us. So they take off two years; we'll plug in UCLA for two years."
According to Calipari, talks to resume the UK-UNC schedule in 2017-18 are already underway
Mark Stoops leads Kentucky into a road matchup with rival Louisville on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Patrick Towles emerged from practice on Tuesday without his customary red jersey.
At this late stage of the season, it's almost unheard of for a coach to allow his quarterback to be hit in practice. So was Mark Stoops trying something drastic before Kentucky's season finale?
No, it turns out. It's just Louisville week.
"No red in this facility this week," Towles said.
With UK (5-6) set to travel to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for a matchup with the No. 22 Cardinals (8-3) at noon ET on Saturday, Towles and his fellow quarterbacks decided in a walkthrough they wanted no part of wearing their archrivals' color. With the Ft. Thomas, Ky., native set to start against Louisville for the first time, it just wouldn't feel right.
"I've been a Kentucky fan my whole life, so this is a game that I look forward to every year," Towles said. "Being able to play in it is truly special for me and my family, so I'm excited - we're all excited to go down there and play 'em."
The excitement is team-wide, but Towles is somewhat of a rarity among the Wildcats when it comes to intimate familiarity with the heated UK-U of L rivalry. He's one of just 10 players on the two-deep depth chart from Kentucky, meaning the coaching staff has had some work to do in helping a young UK team understand the passion behind the annual battle for the Governor's Cup.
"We're giving them different things each (day) and having former players talk to the team a bit and just get them educated on (the rivalry) a little bit and the importance of it," Stoops said. "I don't think there should be any lack of motivation for our team. Just the opportunity to go in there and get our sixth victory, which we all know is very important to us and this program. So I think our team is motivated, but it's also good to educate them on the series and get them caught up to speed on the rivalry."
As Stoops said, UK is trying to manage the emotions of playing its biggest rival and working toward its sixth win, which would make the Cats bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Stoops expects his team to handle it all just fine, especially with the open date UK had to recuperate mentally and physically beforehand.
"We'll prepare and be excited to go play," Stoops said. "But there is no reason to be tense or to go play tight. I don't anticipate that. I'd like to see us play with that great passion and energy that we did for most of the season."
The Cardinals can be expected to do the same.
"They're playing some very good football coming off a great win at Notre Dame," Stoops said. "So Louisville's a very good football team, very well-coached and playing at a high level right now."
That starts on defense, where the Cardinals rank seventh nationally in total defense at 290.2 yards per game and 14th in scoring defense at 18.7 points per game. Only unbeaten and defending national champion Florida State has managed more than 28 points or better than 4.1 yards per carry against U of L.
"They've got one of the top defenses in the country," Towles said. "Bring a lot of pressure. They're really good at defensive end. They've got a lot of really good players, and of course they've got that defensive back with all those interceptions."
That defensive back is safety Gerod Holliman, who, with 13 interceptions, is one pick away from tying a national record that has stood since 1968.
"I think some of that is schematic," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "You have to give some of the credit to their defensive staff. He's a free player quite a bit. But the thing about it is he breaks on the ball really well and he's got good ball skills."
Louisville's pass rush doesn't hurt his cause either.
The Cardinals are ninth nationally in sacks, racking up 3.27 per game. Senior defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin (6.5 sacks) anchors the Cardinal pass rush while also helping to hold opponents to 88.5 yards per game on the ground, good for third nationally.
"They've rushed the passer so well you've got to keep them honest (with the run)," Brown said. "But I think that's important. We've got to do a good job, not only at the offensive line position, but our tight ends, fullbacks have to be involved in the game plan and we've gotta, our running backs have got to run."
On the other side of the ball, UK will contend with a U of L offense that has handed the reins to athletic freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon after a season-ending injury to Will Gardner. The Cardinals also have a stable of running backs that features three runners with at least 378 yards and four touchdowns, as well as a receiving corps boosted by the return of DeVante Parker.
In just five games in 2014, Parker has 29 catches for 555 yards.
"Certainly them having DeVante back outside is a real weapon," Stoops said. "He is a fantastic football player and a guy you've constantly got to have your eye on and know where he's at."
Whether it's in defending Parker or otherwise, it's all hands on deck for a UK team that's as healthy as it's been in a long time after a much-needed bye.
"We'll need to go in there and play our very best," Stoops said. "I expect our team to do that. We've had a great bye week and we're off to a great start here this week. Guys are energized and working extremely hard. Again, we'll need to improve to go in there and compete at a high level with Louisville."
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 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.
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.