Trey Lyles had seven points and 10 rebounds in UK's comeback win over Columbia on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was clear from the opening minutes that Kentucky just didn't have the edge it so often has had this season.
With underdog Columbia jumping out to an 11-0 lead in the opening minutes, the lack of energy quickly spread to the crowd.
The Wildcats never did manage to find their fastball, but Trey Lyles was the player who came the closest to getting them there.
"Great motor," Calipari said of the 6-foot-10 freshman. "Great motor."
Lyles' numbers as No. 1 UK overcame two 11-point first-half deficits to move to 10-0 against the visiting Lions with a 56-46 win don't exactly jump off the box score, but his impact did. His seven points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks would have looked better had he made a couple more shots from in close, but his approach was the game-changer.
"I just went out there and played with energy and tried to help the team in any way I could," Lyles said.
With Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker out on Wednesday due to injury, UK's two-platoon system couldn't work quite as intended. Coach Cal said that contributed to the Cats' inability to move from the malaise, but a second-half shake-up helped them take control after trailing by two at halftime.
Lyles started the second half in place of Alex Poythress, his first-platoon counterpart, the latest proof of Calipari's "it's not communism" tenet with the system.
"Boom, out," Calipari said. "Trey, go. I mean, it's not real hard. The way we're doing this, the only thing I'm asking is, play with a high motor, really play with energy, clap, be enthusiastic, play."
Lyles, even with his McDonald's All-American pedigree and months into his college career, has come to grasp exactly that.
"That's just what I need to do and what he wants from me," said Lyles, who played a season-high 30 minutes. "I have to do that for the team, it's what the team needs. I'm not the only guy. Marcus Lee does the same thing. Alex does the same thing. We all just have to contribute in some way."
Lyles' biggest contributions on Wednesday came on the glass.
With shots not falling - particularly not from 3, where UK hit just 2 of 17 - there were ample opportunities for offensive rebounds, but the Cats weren't capitalizing as often as they normally do in the first half. At halftime, UK had just a 17-15 edge on the boards in spite of a significant size advantage.
To turn it around, Calipari turned to a group that's rarely played together this season, if ever.
"Trey Lyles went after the ball," Calipari said. "I went to a different lineup. Dakari (Johnson) and Karl(-Anthony Towns) weren't getting balls, so I went with Willie and Marcus Lee and we started getting rebounds. You know, this was one of those games where Marcus and Willie were the two that broke the game open. With Trey and, you know, the two guards with Derek Willis. Those seven broke the game open playing that way."
The stretch in which they did it came from the 16:18 mark of the second half to 1:39 left in the game. The Cats outscored Columbia 25-7 in that time, turning a three-point deficit into a 15-point lead. In the process, they paved the way for a 24-13 second-half rebounding edge.
Lyles, of course, had a lot to do with that, though he'd also tell you he has plenty to work on.
"I'm doing all right," Lyles said. "I'm missing too many shots, but that's on me to get in the gym and keep working on it. When shots aren't falling I have to do other things such as rebound and play with energy."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and nine rebounds in UK's win over EKU on Sunday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By any reasonable measure, Karl-Anthony Towns' college career started well.
Starting on the No. 1 team in the land, Towns was among the nation's top shot-blockers and even won Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors after big games against UT Arlington and Providence. He followed that up with 10 more points in Kentucky's second top-10 win of the season against Texas.
But the Saturday after the victory, Towns had a reaction you might not expect.
"I woke up in the morning, brushed my teeth - good hygiene, that's the biggest thing - and I looked in the mirror and I wanted to be better," Towns said. "I wanted to do something a little different than what I'm used to."
For Towns, there's no bigger departure from the norm than abandoning the toothy grin that he's come to be known for around the Joe Craft Center.
"He's got a very nice smile," assistant coach Barry Rohrssen said. "He really does."
Fear not, Coach Rohrssen, the smile isn't going away all the time.
Towns, seeking to find an edge to take his game to the next level, decided stash his smile in favor of a scowl during UK's matchup with Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. Towns' theory is that he plays his best when he's mad, so why not take that mentality to tipoff?
His logic, it seems, was sound.
The freshman was dominant against the Colonels, posting 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting, nine rebounds and four blocks. Just as importantly, the performance drew rave reviews from his toughest critic, Karl Sr., which means Junior plans to try the same approach for UK's next game, a matchup with Columbia (5-2) at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
"My father liked it," Towns said. "He said it's a different person (than) he's ever seen, so I like it too. I looked at a little bit of tape and I thought it kept me a little bit more focused on the game. I like it. I'm going to keep experimenting with it."
Considering Towns had already established himself among the top NBA Draft prospects in the nation, it's somewhat of a scary thought if the experiment works. Towns, after that EKU performance that again won him SEC Freshman of the Week honors, is averaging 9.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 18.8 minutes.
"You're always looking for that next step to give your team another help," Towns said. "I'm just trying to help my team at all causes, at all times."
What Towns has going for him, other than his talent and 6-foot-11 frame, is he's on a team deep and experienced enough that he can experiment with the best ways to do that without having to worry about carrying the load on his own.
"For me it's been great knowing that I have a security blanket, I guess," Towns said. "Not everything's always going to be on my shoulders like it was in high school. The best thing about it is that I put pressure on myself. I want to be the best player I can possibly be. I want to be the best I can be for this team, so I'm putting a lot of pressure just on myself."
Towns' ultimate goal is to forget the freshman label he's carrying and play like his veteran teammates, namely Willie Cauley-Stein, who dominated in the win over Texas that prompted his mini-reinvention.
"The biggest thing is just don't be timid," Towns said. "Go out there and have a ball playing, but also we're getting to that part of the season now. Games are going to be a lot harder. We gotta do what we gotta do to make sure that we're the best possible. If this mentality helps me and the team then so be it. I'll do it every game."
Rohrssen feels the same way, though he still wants Karl to remain Karl off the court.
"His priorities always seem in order," Rohrssen said. "Again, he isn't just a good player. He's a wonderful person. He's so well-liked in this building, among his teammates, on campus, in the community here. Throughout many of the events that we've done, Karl has always gone above and beyond even what you ask him to do."
Whether it's in basketball or in life, going above and beyond is what Towns does. It's just who he is.
"Karl is a bit different, in a good way," Rohrssen said. "In a very good way."
Former UK guards Eric Bledsoe and John Wall posted big games in the NBA this week. (UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
Through games on Sunday, Dec. 7
A trio of former Kentucky guards highlighted week six in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe, John Wall and Rajon Rondo have been on top of their games to this point in the season, but the three floor generals handed in consecutive spectacular performances this past week.
Bledsoe collected averages of 23 points, six assists and three rebounds while logging over 38 minutes per game as the Phoenix Suns posted a 2-1 record for the week. Even as the fourth year guard carried the scoring load for his team, Bledsoe still let his presence be known on the defensive end of the floor, including this spectacular chase-down block against the Rockets on Sunday.
UPDATE: Bledsoe had another huge game on Monday, posting 27 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in a 121-120 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Bledsoe's triple-double against his former team was the first of his career and the first for a Suns player since 2006.
Rajon Rondo was back to his stat-stuffing ways with several eye-popping box score performances. First, Rondo recorded a season-high 19 assists and 12 rebounds last Tuesday, marking his sixth career double-double with assists and rebounds. No other guard in the league currently has more than one.
Rondo continued his passing display on Friday when he out-assisted the entire Los Angeles Lakers team 16 to 14 in a convincing 113-96 win for the Celtics. He capped off the week by posting a triple-double against John Wall and the Washington Wizards. Rondo was good for 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in another Celtics victory, who have put together three straight wins for the first time this season.
Even with the greatness from Rondo, former Wildcat John Wall pieced together an impressive night himself. Wall finished the game with 17 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks in what was truly a heavyweight matchup between two of the league's best point guards.
76ers get first win
The Philadelphia 76ers opened the 2014-15 NBA season with a 17-game losing streak, just one game away from tying the NBA's worst start in league history. On Wednesday, though, Philly defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves as rookie Nerlens Noel chipped in eight points, three rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes of action.
Noel followed up the first encouraging night of basketball in his young career with an 11-point, 10-rebound performance, recording his third double-double of the season.
Week seven TV schedule
Tuesday: Dallas @ Memphis (Tayshaun Prince) 8:00 p.m. on NBA TV Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) @ L.A. Lakers 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV Wednesday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis) @ Dallas 8:00 p.m. on ESPN Thursday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) 10:30 p.m. on TNT Friday: Portland @ Chicago (Nazr Mohammed) 7:00 p.m. on ESPN
Marcus Lee had 10 points, all on dunks, in UK's 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Marcus Lee was the first UK player to find out firsthand what John Calipari meant when he said the platoon system is "not communism."
With Willie Cauley-Stein, Lee's first-platoon counterpart, dominating in a top-10 matchup with Texas, Lee was informed in the locker room he would move into a backup role in the second half.
It would have been understandable had Lee been a little down playing just one minute after halftime. Instead, he sat back and enjoyed the show.
"It was great the other game just watching him go off," Lee said. "That's the greatest I've seen Willie and that's just the kind of team we are."
Lee, in spite of having to take a step back, didn't disengage. Knowing how the platoons work and that his time would come, the sophomore was secure enough being the biggest cheerleader for the player who was getting his minutes as he posted 21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
"When someone ahead of you is doing really well, you're just like, 'Hey Coach, keep him in,' and you're totally fine with it and you know you have the next game," Lee said. "So I wasn't worried about it at all. I knew today would just be a new game and everything would be different."
He was right.
Lee, jumping right back into the rotation, had his best game of the season in No. 1 UK's latest dominant performance, an 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday at Rupp Arena. Lee had 10 points in the victory on five second-half dunks, his offensive specialty.
"It makes the game fun," Lee said. "Any kind of lob is fun. But playing this fast tempo is just something that I've always loved to do. It's just my kind of game and the lobs just kind of came naturally in this game."
Considering Lee had been quiet through much of UK's undefeated start, scoring no more than four points in any game before EKU, his emergence was encouraging. Much more encouraging is the fact that the Cats are responding to the way playing time is being divvied up just as the coaching staff hoped they would.
"These guys genuinely really like each other," assistant coach John Robic said.
Those feelings were proven by the way Lee handled Cauley-Stein's career night on Friday and again Sunday by Cauley-Stein. Forty-eight hours removed from a performance that had NBA scouts and analysts buzzing, Cauley-Stein was eager to see Lee succeed just as Lee had been for him.
So eager, in fact, that Cauley-Stein told John Calipari to leave Lee in at one point rather than check back in himself.
"It was Willie's turn to go in, and Willie told Coach, 'Keep Marcus in,' " Robic said.
Watching the moment live, Robic was reminded of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament title game when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gave up his starting spot for a struggling Darius Miller. UK would lose the game to Vanderbilt, but Miller regained his form and the Cats would of course go on to win their eighth national championship.
"It was one of those things that if you think back what Gilchrist did for Darius Miller, that's a sign of maturity, that's a sign of a leader, that's a sign of being a good teammate," Robic said. "They appreciate that."
It remains to be seen whether similarly selfless acts by this year's team will lead to No. 9, but it's certainly not a bad sign.
"That totally puts trust and comfort in your other players knowing that I'd be able to do it for him and he's also capable of doing the same for me," Lee said. "It kind of just shows how much we care for each other and we're not just there for ourselves."