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Improving post play carries Cats to dominant win

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Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in a 110-75 win over Auburn. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in a 110-75 win over Auburn. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl knew all about Kentucky's post play even before he brought his Auburn team to Rupp Arena.

On Saturday, he witnessed it up close and in person.

"They are very physical defensively," Pearl said. "And it's nothing like anything we've seen all year long. What they do offensively as far as pounding it inside, there's nobody in the league who's even close to that."

And by the Wildcats' high standards, they even turned things up a notch for the Tigers.

No. 1 UK, in moving to 27-0 (14-0 Southeastern Conference), was dominant in a 110-75 win. The Cats overwhelmed with their strength and length, outscoring the Tigers 62-24 in the paint and outrebounding them by a margin of 44-22.

The Cats came in waves with Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson leading the way. Towns had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, while Johnson had 13 points and six rebounds in just 16 minutes.

"I thought Karl and Dakari were outstanding today," John Calipari said. "The other guys all played pretty well but those two stood out."

Towns' performance continued a run of recent strong play, with Saturday being his fifth double-digit scoring performance in seven games and third double-double of the stretch. Johnson, on the other hand, had a breakout game of sorts.

The 7-foot sophomore has struggled at times to score in the post this season, but experienced no such issues against Auburn. He made 6 of 7 from the field and made quick, decisive moves in doing so.

"It's about getting deeper position," Johnson said. "That's what Coach has been telling me, so I won't have to take as many dribbles and stuff. I can take one or two dribbles then go right up. That's what we've been trying to focus on the last couple of games."

Johnson's worthiest opposition on Saturday wasn't the opposition at all. It was Marcus Lee.

Midway through the second half, Johnson found himself in prime offensive-rebounding position when Devin Booker missed a short jumper. But instead of Johnson grabbing the rebound and putting it in for an easy two points, Lee streaked in trailing the play and dunked over his teammate.

"I tried to get the offensive rebound and then somebody just came over the back," Johnson said. "I was like--I was mad at first because it was my offensive rebound, then I saw Marcus. So it was crazy."

Johnson went sprawling and Lee tripped over him.

"We were very confused, because we both ended up on the floor, and he was like, 'You jumped over me and fell on me,' " said Lee, who had six points and eight rebounds on the night when Tony Delk, who preceded Lee in wearing number 00, had his jersey retired. "I was like, 'Sorry.' It was kind of like a big awkwardness."

Awkwardness aside, the play gave a little insight into what it looks like when the Cats go at each other on the practice floor at the Joe Craft Center.

"It's either, us going at each other and ending up fighting each other," Lee said. "... I think that's how we honestly get better is we always go at each other, even though we're on the same team. I'm always going at Willie, and Dakari and Karl are always going at each other and they're not stopping at any point. Cal has to stop because he thinks we're getting too rough. That's how our practices make us better."

For a brief time, Coach Cal backed off in practice anticipating the stretch run. The result, however, was a step back in games, most notably in the post. But in recent weeks, he's turned the heat back on. UK's smothering of Auburn is proof it's working.

"That's something we've really been focusing on lately," Lee said. "We've been doing that for a while - for the past, I guess, four or five games - because for a while, as a big team, we knew we were struggling getting stuff done."

There was no such struggle on Saturday.

Their inside presence reestablished and Johnson and Towns scoring at will on post-up opportunities, the Cats forced Auburn into a series of impossible defensive choices in scoring a season-high 110 points.

"So are they going to try to front the post?" Calipari said. "Are they going to try to trap? If they do trap, are they trapping from a big guy? Are they trapping from a guard? Are they just going to dig? And then we had to play off of it, and we played well off of it. We kicked it out for 3s. We kicked it out for drives. We posted the ball when the court was spread."  

UK converted 6-of-17 3-point tries, just below UK's shooting percentage of .362 in SEC play, making the Tigers pay for sending bodies at UK's bigs.

"They hunt shots," Pearl said. "They want them. If anybody goes zone now, their eyes get big, you know? That's a good thing. They throw it down in the post. They hardly wait for it to get kicked back out. And the deal is, they're so much more dominant on the inside, because those guys can score down there."

With Kentucky's interior play rounding into form and the rest falling into place behind it, the Cats appear well positioned to peak come March.

"I mean, I call it baby steps," Lee said. "Every time you kind of just get better each time until you actually start walking. That's how we're getting it. We're taking our time knowing that we know where we have to be when March hits. So, we're just trying to get there at some point. We're not really in a rush."

Video: Delk's jersey retirement ceremony

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Video: Towns, Lee, Johnson on UK's win over Auburn

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Video: Highlights from UK's 110-75 win over Auburn

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Video: Coach Cal's post-Auburn press conference

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Video: Hansen, Delk on jersey retirement

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Video: Towns, Ulis preview Auburn matchup

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Video: Coach Cal previews Auburn matchup

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Performance of the Week

DeMarcus Cousins | Milwaukee Bucks: 111, Sacramento Kings: 103
In Sacramento's last game before the All-Star break, Cousins posted a monster double-double on the road versus Brandon Knight's Bucks. The 24-year-old Alabama native recorded 28 points (on 10-for-12 free-throw shooting), 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in a losing effort on Feb. 11.


Cats in the Spotlight

Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (29-25)
After missing a Feb. 8 contest with Sacramento to witness the birth of his child, Bledsoe returned to action last Tuesday in a 127-118 loss to the Houston Rockets. With 12 points in 13 trips to the foul line, Bledsoe totaled 32 points on the day. He filled out the box score with four assists, four rebounds, two steals and a block.

DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (18-34)
In only three matchups last week, Cousins recorded two 28-point games, each complemented by a double-digit performance on the glass. Before last Wednesday's double-double in Milwaukee, Cousins posted 28 points and 12 rebounds in an 85-83 win over the Phoenix Suns.

Enes Kanter | #0 C | Utah Jazz (19-34)
Kanter-- who averages 7.8 RPG on the season-- grabbed at least 10 rebounds in both Jazz contests last week, highlighted by a 14-point, 11-rebound performance in a 100-96 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Brandon Knight | #11 PG | Milwaukee Bucks (30-23)
After an uncharacteristically lackluster showing in a Feb. 9 Bucks win, Knight scored 20 points (with six rebounds and five assists) in Milwaukee's eight-point defeat of Cousins' Kings.

Jodie Meeks | #20 SG | Detroit Pistons (21-33)
Despite two low scoring performances in Pistons losses on Sunday and Wednesday, Meeks poured in 18 points in a 106-78 Detroit win over the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.

Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (12-41)
In the Sixers' only game, Noel stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal. Philly lost to the Golden State Warriors, 89-84.

John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (33-21)

Despite re-injuring a nagging sprained ankle in a Feb. 9 win, Wall bounced back on Wednesday with 21 points and eight assists in a 95-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 11.

Cats in All-Star Weekend

Rising Stars Challenge
Nerlens Noel contributed four points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in a starting effort for Team USA in the Rising Stars Challenge. Team World, however, won the game, 121-112.

Skills Challenge
After beating defending champion Trey Burke (Jazz) in the first round, and cruising past Kyle Lowry (Raptors) in the second, Brandon Knight was defeated by Patrick Beverley (Houston Rockets) in the Skills Challenge final.

All-Star Game

In his first career All-Star starting nod, John Wall scored 19 points and dished out seven assists in the Eastern Conference's 163-158 loss to the Western Conference. Cousins added 14 points and seven rebounds off the bench for the West. Anthony Davis, who was voted a frontcourt starter for the West, sat out the weekend with a sprained shoulder.

Forget the wins, Calipari still pushing improvement

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Kentucky moved to 26-0 with a 66-48 win at Tennessee on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky moved to 26-0 with a 66-48 win at Tennessee on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Not many coaches can say it, but John Calipari has been in this position before.

Twice before this season he'd coached teams to 26-0 starts, experience he's calling on as Kentucky set a record for the best start in program history on Tuesday night.

It's with that in mind that Coach Cal has changed his approach to coaching through mistakes.

"I would have, you know, we keep winning, we're up 18, I'm not screwing this up," Calipari said. "Well you are screwing it up if you don't correct. You are screwing it up if it happens in March and you let it go in February, shame on me."

For that reason, Calipari didn't sound much like a winning coach after the top-ranked Wildcats (26-0, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) won at Tennessee (14-11, 6-7 SEC), 66-48. He isn't letting mistakes go by without comment.

Take Devin Booker for example. The freshman sharpshooter scored a game-high 18 points and added a career-best seven rebounds. He played good defense for good measure as UK held Tennessee to 37.5-percent shooting - including 17 points on 25-percent second-half shooting - but Calipari was looking for more.

"Yeah, but he missed a bunch of shots," Calipari said. "And I was getting upset because I kept saying we wanted to start the game posting the ball. So what did we do? We shot 3s."

UK made just 5 of 22 from 3-point range, but the Cats rebounded more than half their overall misses to make up for it. However, the fact that Tennessee had 19 offensive rebounds to UK's 17 did not escape Coach Cal's notice.

"Well, let me say this," Calipari said. "We didn't outrebound them, and they got 19 offensive rebounds and there was a clip with three minutes to go where they got five offensive rebounds in a row. So, we have some work to do."

In Calipari's mind, the same goes for UK's two-headed point-guard monster of Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis. The pair combined for 22 points, eight assists and just one of UK's 11 turnovers, but they heard from their coach as well.

"I was on Andrew because he wasn't attacking," Calipari said. "I said, 'If you don't attack I'm not putting you in the game. I don't care if you turn the ball over. When you catch it if you just pass it, you're coming out.' Then, when he attacks, Andrew, now we got he and Tyler both attacking, we're coming running downhill at you, and we become the aggressor."

That mentality, to Calipari, is what it's all about.

"That's why I keep telling them, you've got to come out and play," Calipari said. "If you're not attacking, I'm taking you out. You can say that I'm messing with you but I don't care what you say, but you're not going to play. Because that's the way they're going to get us."

Aggressiveness wasn't the problem for Karl-Anthony Towns, rather controlling it. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Week played just a minute in the first half after picking up a pair of fouls that Calipari says can't happen come tournament time.

"I was just really disappointed in those fouls, and they were fouls," Calipari said. "I mean, they were just a plain push - 'What are you - why would you do that? Are you going to do that in March? Is that the play you'll make in March? Then foul a shooter?' And he fouled him. So, there are things we have to know and grow from."

To the outside world, the Cats' pursuit of perfection defines them. There are ESPN commercials about it and all. But to Calipari, it's all about that improvement. Whether UK falters in game No. 27 as UMass did in 1995-96 and Memphis did in 2007-08 matters little. Getting to and winning game No. 40 is what counts.

"I'm telling you, we're playing to get better," Calipari said. "If that means we win more games, that's fine. We are playing to get better. There are areas of offense we're focusing on and there's areas of defense we're focusing on. And that's what we're doing."

And don't doubt the Cats have accepted that challenge.

"When Coach really says this is like a wolf pack, this is a wolf pack," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Like, we're trying to be something special. So every day we're trying to make each other better and that's powerful. That's what--you know that's the path we're on and we're going to continue to be on that path, so, I mean, that's the biggest thing I can tell you."

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: You have a couple options. You can stream audio using our official app. Find it by searching "Kentucky Wildcats Gameday." read more
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