Devin Booker tied a career high with 19 points in UK's 83-44 win over UCLA on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CHICAGO -- His team mired in a cold streak from outside, John Calipari asked a rhetorical question about what UK would do to its opponents if the Wildcats hit their 3s.
Anyone who didn't know the answer found out Saturday.
The Cats came out firing against UCLA, building a 16-0 lead and hitting two 3s before the second platoon even checked in. Once it did, Devin Booker hit two more 3s in a personal eight-point barrage that gave UK an insurmountable 24-0 lead.
From there, UK had to find a new opponent.
"We have to keep playing against (ourselves)," Booker said. "Coach always stresses to us that we're not playing against the other team, we're against ourselves."
Coach Cal, meanwhile, wasn't even bothering to look at the score as the No. 1 Cats raced to a 41-7 halftime advantage. He did sneak a peek or too after halftime though, which told him everything he needed to know about UK's 83-44 win over the Bruins (8-4).
"I didn't look at the score," Calipari said. "Like in the first half, I did not know what the score was. I knew it was pretty good, but I did not look -- to be honest, I couldn't find it in the arena."
UK fans, who accounted for the majority of the 19,726 fans in Chicago's United Center on Saturday afternoon, reveled in their team's 12th straight double-digit win to start the season, a school record. They cheered as the Cats smothered UCLA to the tune of 26.8-percent shooting and 0.618 points per possession. They applauded as UK hit 12 of 26 from 3-point range and exactly 50 percent from the field overall.
UCLA's Steve Alford, meanwhile, could do little but marvel at the group his friend Coach Cal has assembled.
"I don't know in my 20 years of coaching at the Division I level that I've coached against a better team than what this team looks like," Alford said. "They have everything."
Though he wasn't as quick to pump the brakes on the hype machine as he was after the last time UK demolished a fellow blue-blood program in a made-for-TV neutral-site showdown against Kansas last month, Coach Cal didn't join the chorus praising UK as a potential all-time team. Painting a masterpiece, after all, happens one brushstroke at a time.
"I'm day to day," Calipari said. "I'm in a grind and I'm staying in the moment. The one thing I'm doing is really enjoying these guys."
It isn't their dominance on the court that Calipari is enjoying so much either, at least not primarily. To him, it's all about the selflessness that's allowing it all to happen.
"We can all talk about defense and blocking shots and playing hard, but you've got 10 guys, 11 guys sharing minutes," Calipari said.
At point guard, you have Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, who combined for 15 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
Aaron Harrison and Booker are splitting minutes at shooting guard, but that didn't stop them from accounting for 34 total points on eight made 3s.
Among UK's frontcourt players, no one among Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson or Trey Lyles had eye-popping numbers, but as a group they dominated.
"I think the story is how good are these kids, and how strong are these families and how trusting they are," Calipari said. "Willie said it after the Kansas game. He came in and said, we trust the coaches, and we trust each other. That's what this is. It's a group of kids that trust."
Relying on that trust, the Cats are accepting their coach's challenge to dream. That's why they never relented even as their lead ballooned to as large as 46 points.
"As we go forward, we've got one thing, how do we continue, let's make this world class," Calipari said. "How do we become that world-class team, and it's real simple. One, you have few errors and you have no unforced errors. That's what a world-class team is about. The second thing a world-class team is about, they absolutely enjoy, even the tough times. They enjoy playing."
As much as they enjoy playing, the Cats couldn't help but look forward to a four-day break for the holidays that would follow the UCLA game. UCLA, as it turns out, was the only thing standing between the Cats and home.
"Everyone is excited," Booker said. "We're all excited to go home, and we knew we had to go through this first game and it wasn't going to be easy, but we just brought energy to the floor, and that's what put it over the top."
But after that break, it's back to business for Kentucky. Even with a trip to Louisville looming on Saturday, that means the Cats will be playing themselves more than the archrival Cardinals.
"You know, we're trying to build something here to say, you're going out, playing against yourself, and you hear these kids talking about it," Calipari said. "World-class teams play against themselves; they don't play against the opponent."
Tyler Ulis will play in his hometown of Chicago when UK faces UCLA on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and UCLA have long been parallel programs.
There have been occasional run-ins, namely the 1975 national championship game and a spat of meetings in the 1990s and 2000s, but the two teams with the most national championships in the history of the game have had separate existences.
For the next three years, that's changing.
UK and UCLA will have their first of three December matchups in as many seasons this weekend, starting a relationship John Calipari believes will be mutually beneficial.
"We want a tie to programs like that," Coach Cal said. "That's what we want."
The first game comes in the inaugural CBS Sports Classic at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, capping a doubleheader kicked off by North Carolina and Ohio State at Chicago's United Center. The next two matchups will be at Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena, respectively, but the first one is the focus for now.
"It's going to be a great experience to play against them, and being able to play at a neutral site is going to be fun," Trey Lyles said. "Hopefully we go out there and get the win."
UK (11-0), of course, enters the game with an unblemished record and a No. 1 ranking, while UCLA (8-3) is out of the polls in spite of winning four of its last five games. The Bruins are led by second-year head coach Steve Alford, with whom Calipari shares a close relationship.
"I've known him for years and years," Calipari said. "We've become close, but I knew him when he was at Southwest Missouri State. ... He and I have been close. When he went to Iowa, I think we played. They beat us when I was at Memphis, one of my first years. But he's a terrific coach, just a great guy."
Calipari and Alford will match wits on Saturday, but the two have very different teams.
Kentucky has suffocating depth and the platoon system, ranking second in the nation in bench minutes and featuring no player playing more than 24.5 minutes per game. Willie Cauley-Stein is the closest thing the Cats have to a traditional statistical standout, posting team bests of 10.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on a group perhaps most noteworthy for its balance.
UCLA, on the other hand, relies heavily on a capable starting five. Each Bruin starter is averaging double digits in points and four are playing at least 31 minutes per game, led by Bryce Alford. Alford, his head coach's middle child, is averaging 18 points and 6.7 assists in 34.9 minutes per game.
"He's one of those guys -- and there's not many in the country -- that can take over a game and change the complexion of a game within a minute and a half," Calipari said. "And the reason is he can pull up from anywhere, he makes free throws, he can get you in foul trouble, his three off the bounce, off the catch, very, very skilled and a great passer."
Alford has good options when he does pass, including freshman forward Kevon Looney, who is averaging a double-double with 13.9 points and 10.9 rebounds to establish himself as a potential top-10 pick. Senior guard Norman Powell, meanwhile, is averaging 17.4 points and shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range.
"He's like a scoring machine," Calipari said. "He's got some physique to him, he can get to the rim, he can make threes. He and Bryce in the backcourt have complemented each other."
The question, however, is how the Bruins will handle that UK depth.
The Cats have overwhelmed so far this season, winning all 11 of their games by double digits largely thanks to their ability to wear down the opposition with waves of depth.
"That's the whole idea of the platoon system is to try to bring in fresh bodies and wear the other team down," said Tyler Ulis, who will return to his hometown for the UCLA game. "I feel like every game we're coming in with the same attitude to try to attack them and get after it."
Lyles, meanwhile, has heard the talk of UK sprinting past UCLA thanks to that depth, but he knows the on-paper advantage grants them nothing.
"That may be true, but they have guys who can make plays and score the ball and do other things," Lyles said. "We're not going to look down on them because of that. We're going to accept the challenge and go out there and play to the best of our ability and play as a team."
Ultimately, UK is more concerned with maximizing its own potential than in playing any blue-blood matchup like Saturday's or engaging in the best-team-since-when hype that's already swirling.
"I think all of us let it go in one ear and out the other, because it really doesn't matter if we don't go out there and perform, so we need to go out there and play to the best of our abilities, and play as a team and continue to win," Lyles said. "So once the season is said and done, they can say that then."
The Wildcats celebrate their win over North Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When you're at Kentucky and you start threatening records that have stood for more than a half-century, you're doing some good things.
The Wildcats, if they beat UCLA by 10 or more points on Saturday, would become the first team in school history to defeat its first 12 opponents by double digits. With a win over North Carolina last weekend, UK matched the record of 11 straight double-digit wins to start the 1946-47 season.
With that, UK ranks first in the nation in scoring margin, beating opponents by an average of 28.2 points per game. Unsurprisingly, the Wildcats have only strengthened their grip on the top spot in both major polls, claiming 29 of 31 first-place votes in the coaches' poll and all 65 in the AP Top 25. No team since Duke in 2010-11 has been a unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll at this point in the season.
Computer rankings tell a similar story of UK's dominance.
The Cats are ranked No. 1 according to all but seven of 41 major college basketball ranking systems compiled by masseyratings.com as of Sunday, topping the RPI, the Sagarin Ratings and 32 others.
UK is also No. 1 Ken Pomeroy's ratings with a Pythagorean win percentage (expected win percentage against an average Division-I team based on offensive and defensive efficiency) of .9719. That's the second-highest Pythagorean win percentage in the 14-year history of Pomeroy's rankings, trailing 2007-08 Kansas' .9753. The Cats are also third nationally in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency, making them the first team since that same Kansas squad to be in the top three of both.
Of course it's early, but UK has only climbed in Pomeroy's rankings so far this season. If the Cats keep up their pace, they could be in line to make some history on that front.
That's also the case when it comes to the Basketball Power Index. ESPN released its first BPI ratings of the season on Tuesday and the Cats are No. 1 by a wide margin. With a BPI of 96.0, UK is well ahead of No. 2 Virginia at 92.9. For perspective, the highest BPI in the four-year history of the rating system was 2011-12 Kentucky at 92.4. That team, as you might remember, was pretty good.
Perhaps most amazing when it comes to the BPI is UK's consistency. The Cats are dead last among 351 teams nationally in variance, meaning their performance level so far this season has changed less from game to game than any other team in America.
Computer ratings don't do it for you? How about raw stats? Here are all the major categories in which UK ranks in the top 20 nationally according to NCAA.com and kenpom.com.
Willie Cauley-Stein had 15 points, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks in UK's 84-70 win over North Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
John Calipari has had future No. 1 overall picks. He's even had a player, Anthony Davis, whom he called spider-man.
But for all the talent Coach Cal has had in five-plus seasons at Kentucky, he's never had a player who inspired a name-based adverb as Willie Cauley-Stein did with his performance against North Carolina.
"Willie Cauley was really--he was Willie good today," Calipari said.
Cauley-Stein, for the second time in as many top-25 matchups for Kentucky in the last eight days, was the best player on the floor as the top-ranked Wildcats (11-0) took down the No. 18 Tar Heels, 84-70.
"I was just playing," said Cauley-Stein, who had 15 points, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
That might be what makes Cauley-Stein so scary, that it didn't take any sort of extraordinary effort to do what he did in his 28 minutes.
As always, he ran the floor and created opportunities for himself and his teammates with his rare blend of size and speed. He of course threw down a few of his patented lobs, soaring higher than he had seemingly any business doing. Per usual, he was a defensive terror, short-circuiting North Carolina opportunities with his ability to guard every position, athleticism and quick hands.
"To be 7-foot and run like that and be able to jump like that is incredible," said Devin Booker, who tied Cauley-Stein with a team-high 15 points, including three made 3-pointers.
It's when those things collide that it becomes clear exactly how good Cauley-Stein has become as a junior. One 37-second stretch late in the second half perhaps best illustrates that fact.
UK was leading by a relatively comfortable 12-point margin with 5:19 left, but the Tar Heels were still within shouting distance with preseason All-American Marcus Paige burying 3s left and right. Cauley-Stein, however, put an end to any designs the Tar Heels may have had on a comeback.
First, he rose and dunked a lob from Trey Lyles that seemed destined to go out of bounds. Moments later, he flew down the court as Lyles snared a defensive rebound, received a pass and threw down an emphatic one-handed slam for one of Tyler Ulis' eight assists. To finish it off, he got around his man in the post, deflected a J.P. Tokoto pass, dove on the floor to complete the steal and called timeout.
In the course of three possessions, Cauley-Stein sent a sellout Rupp Arena crowd of 24,406 into a frenzy, demoralized Carolina and all but sealed UK's 11th straight double-digit win to start the season, only the second time in school history and first since 1946-47 such a start has happened.
"He affects the game in every way," UNC's Roy Williams said. "He blocks shots, gets steals, gets follow-dunks, and gets dunks from guard penetration throwing it up around the rim, he goes and gets it, but he is a complete player. If you look at it, he affected the game drastically and only took nine shots."
Cauley-Stein's do-it-all effort came in UK's first game without Alex Poythress, whose season ended Thursday due to a torn ACL suffered in practice. Poythress is his best friend on the team, but Cauley-Stein had to put his classmate, suite mate and former roommate's pain out of his mind.
"At the end of the day you just have to clear it out," Cauley-Stein said. "Once you step in between the lines you can't be thinking about anything else but the game plan and what you have to do for the team to win."
But whenever Cauley-Stein came to the bench, his first move was to give a handshake or hug to Poythress, who attended Saturday's game on crutches. Poythress began the game sitting at the table along the baseline, but couldn't stay away from his teammates and moved to the bench to be with them.
"It was just big he got to come out," Cauley-Stein said. "I didn't know if he'd be able to come out. The fact that he got out of bed and came to support us is big to us. It's good that he's still smiling and likes to be with us. That's the most important part about it."
Cauley-Stein, even in dealing with an injury to his teammate, is showing maturity and perspective he hasn't always had. With that, he's beginning to come close to fully realizing his otherworldly potential.
"Knowing that there's a role I have on the team," Cauley-Stein said. "Last year I didn't really need to have a role. Just roam around and block shots. This year it's clear I have a role I have to uphold. That type of leadership role, too, is big to me. Having that is really what's keeping me going."
More concerned about his team than himself, Cauley-Stein is flourishing.
"You're talking about a junior, you're talking about a guy that's played against some of the best players in the country, and he's a veteran, he's coming into his own, he's figuring out who he is as a person, as a player," Calipari said. "He's doing it."
The numbers prove it.
Over his last five games, Cauley-Stein is averaging 13.6 points on 59.1-percent shooting. To go with that, he's grabbing 7.8 rebounds, snagging 2.6 steals and blocking 1.6 shots, all while garnering praise from NBA Draft experts as a potential high-lottery selection.
Even so, he sees bigger things in his future.
"I feel like I haven't even begun to peak," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm just climbing. Like, if I want to, I could do something that's really never been done in history, and that's the way I look at it. If I really want to be the best player in the country, all I have to do is work at it."