With the first month of the 2014-15 NBA season in the books, former Kentucky players have enjoyed their fair share of headlines.
Maybe the most impressive performance thus far came on Monday when the NBA announced that Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has been named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month For November.
Casey is from Union County, Ky., and played for UK under Joe B. Hall from 1975-79, helping the program to its fifth NCAA title as a junior in 1978. After his collegiate playing career came to end Casey spent two different stints as an assistant coach and lead recruiter for the Cats over six seasons in the 80s.
In the early 90s Casey spent time overseas with head coaching jobs in the Japanese Basketball League before making his way into the NBA. Now in his fourth year with the Raptors, the former Wildcat has his young team at the top of the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2004.
As it stands, Toronto's 13-4 record is the best start to a season in the history of the franchise, and the team's 13-win total marks the most wins in a one-month span in the Raptors 19 years of existence.
Two former Cats on the court have played distinctive roles in the success of the Raptors' season thus far.
Patrick Patterson has started three games this season for Toronto, but has spent the majority of November in the sixth man role averaging 25 minutes per game. He has expanded his offensive game since he last put on a Kentucky uniform in 2010 becoming a legitimate stretch four with his ability to knock down consistent 3-point shots that he showed began to show in his final season at UK.
The 6-foot-9 big man is shooting 39 percent from deep this season while knocking down 1.3 3s per game.
Patterson may see an increase in playing time going forward. The fifth year pro has notched two straight double-doubles while logging more than 30 minutes per contest in his last two games.
Chuck Hayes has seen far less action than his UK counterpart, playing just over 10 minutes per game in 11 games off the bench this season. But Hayes is now one month into his tenth NBA season. The veteran has not made his living by posting flashy numbers throughout his career.
Hayes brings a locker-room presence that is essential to any team trying to make a run at a championship. And with the fast start in November, mentions of championship expectations are starting to creep up for the Raptors. Other week five spotlights
From a statistical standpoint John Wall had an up and down week as the Wizards tallied a 2-2 record. But when Wall is asked to step up and single-handedly take over a game, he rarely fails to rise to the occasion, and that is exactly what he did on Monday night when the Washington handed Miami a 21-point loss.
Wall led the way with 18 points, shooting 6 of 10 from the field. He also dished out some of the most spectacular assists of the seasons matching a season high 13 assists in the game. The All-Star point guard also grabbed five rebounds and grabbed two steals in what was one of his most complete performances of the season.
DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings got the better of the Pelicans last week as the center bullied his way to 22 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three steals in the 99-89 win on the road.
Cousins leads the league in double-doubles this season and he now has eight straight games with double-digit points and rebounds.
Anthony Davis had just 14 points and nine rebounds in the game, a performance well below his season averages. The Pelicans lost all three games last week and have since moved quickly to put themselves in position to make an immediate acquisition.
This meant Davis' Kentucky teammate Darius Miller had to be waived to make room for whomever the Pelicans decide to target in the coming weeks.
Miller appeared in just five games (one start) this season as he battled preseason injuries, and took time off for the birth of his daughter. New Orleans selected Miller in the second round of the 2012 draft and the Kentucky product has since played 102 career games (10 starts) over the last three seasons. Week six TV schedule
Thursday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis) @ Golden State 10:30 p.m. on TNT Friday: Denver @ Washington (John Wall) 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV Indiana @ Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) 10:00 p.m. on NBA TV Saturday: Golden State @ Chicago (Nazr Mohammed) 8:00 p.m. on NBA TV Statistics (through games on Nov. 30)
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 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