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The freshman forward scored a career high at Mississippi State on Wednesday, showing the kind of versatility 6-foot-10 players aren't supposed to have.
But afterward, John Calipari was thinking bigger.
"He should have had 25 today," Calipari said, with a caveat. "But I thought he played well."
Lyles would have to settle for 18 points and six rebounds as top-ranked Kentucky moved to 28-0 (15-0 Southeastern Conference) with a 74-56 win in snowy Starkville, Miss. The Indianapolis native got off to a quick start, scoring the Wildcats' first basket on a lob dunk and 13 points within the first 15 minutes to make the illness that forced him to miss three games a not-so-distant memory.
"He's just getting healthy," Calipari said. "He's getting back to being who he is. You're talking two-three weeks, I don't know exactly how long he was out, but he was out awhile."
During the time Lyles spent away from his team, part of his treatment was to eat as much possible to avoid dropping pounds. He managed to stay near his listed weight of 235 pounds and now he's working to reach his pre-sickness fitness level.
"Lifting weights and doing extra stuff to try and get back to where I was, and I feel like I'm very close to that," Lyles said.
With Lyles on his way in that regard, Coach Cal is asking him to pick it up in terms of aggressiveness as well. Lyles is sixth among Wildcats in scoring, attempting barely six field goals per game, and Calipari doesn't think that's enough.
"My thing to him is, dominate," Calipari said. "Dominate rebounding around the rim. One-dribble pull-ups. Guard. Block shots. Do everything. You're capable of doing it."
It's the everything that makes Lyles so unique.
While Willie Cauley-Stein might create the most highlights with his high-flying dunks and Karl-Anthony Towns the most NBA Draft buzz with his potential and production, Lyles has a quieter game. Splitting time between the perimeter and the post, Lyles does what's asked of him and does it well.
"Maybe by (the media), but no one that evaluates basketball (overlooks Lyles)," Calipari said. "They know how good he is. They know what he's preparing for. I mean, he's being trained as a three. He's a 6-10, three-four and he's being trained as a three. All I want him to do is shoot more balls."
For the coach of a team playing one of the deepest rotations in the country, that's somewhat of an odd thing to have to tell a player to shoot more. Calipari, however, has good reason for doing so.
"I still think at the end of the day he'll be the X-factor for us," Calipari said. "He'll be the guy that they struggle to guard, that has offensive skills, that can still give us great size and rebounding ability."
Lyles has made an immediate difference since his return to the lineup. With him in the fold, UK has won the rebounding battle in four of five games after being outrebounded in three of the previous five.
Now Coach Cal is hoping Lyles can use his performance against Mississippi State as a springboard to being a spark in other areas.
"Let's say this is the start, maybe, of something," Calipari said.
In the midst of a historic NBA trade deadline that saw a record 39 players shuffled around the league, three former Cats were traded on February 19. Brandon Knight, fresh off a second-place finish in last weekend's All-Star Skills Challenge, was traded for the second time in his three-and-a-half-year career. Knight was moved from the Milwaukee Bucks (where he averaged 17.8 points and 5.4 assists per game) to the Phoenix Suns, where he will join Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin in the backcourt. Knight's college teammate Enes Kanter was dealt from the Utah Jazz (where he was selected third overall in the 2011 NBA Draft) to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lastly, former 2001 SEC Player of the Year Tayshaun Prince was traded for the second time this season. The four-time NBA All-Defensive Second Team performer was moved from the Boston Celtics (after a five-week stint with the team) back to the Detroit Pistons, where he spent the first 10 and a half seasons of his career and won his only NBA championship in 2003-04.
Performance of the Week
DeMarcus Cousins | Sacramento Kings: 109, Boston Celtics: 103
In Sacramento's first game since February 11, Cousins scored 31 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a six-point win at home on February 20. The 6-foot-11 former Wildcat averages 23.9 PPG and 12.3 RPG on the season.
Cats in the Spotlight
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (19-35)
In addition to Friday's monster double-double outing, Cousins scored 21 points the very next day in a 126-99 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The two games were the Kings' first under new head coach George Karl.
Archie Goodwin | #20 SG | Phoenix Suns (29-27)
After trading away the lion's share of Phoenix's distributable backcourt minutes in Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, the Suns opened playing time for second-year player Archie Goodwin. The Arkansas native twice matched a season-high 12 points in two games this weekend. Goodwin averaged 19.0 minutes per game in the two Phoenix losses.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (22-31)
In his first game back since suffering a right hamstring injury that kept him out of two Hornets contests, Kidd-Gilchrist scored 20 points (on 4-for-4 free-throw shooting), grabbed four rebounds, and recorded three steals on February 21. Charlotte lost to the Thunder, 110-103.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (12-42)
With a stat line that Sixers head coach Brett Brown called "fantastic," Noel went down in Philadelphia basketball history on February 20. After blocking five shots in the game's first 10 minutes, Noel finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, nine blocks, and four steals on the day. The 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year became the first NBA rookie to record such a stat line since steals and blocks were initially tracked in 1973-74.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (33-22)
Despite a 127-89 blowout loss at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wall logged 18 points, nine assists, and five rebounds on February 20. Wall made what many considered to be the Wizards' play of the game in a firsthand showcase of his nonstop competitive motor.
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."