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
Karl-Anthony Towns had 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal in UK's 92-44 win over UT Arlington on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari can sense the narrative changing.
The season began with incessant talk of Kentucky's platoon system and whether it would work, but the way the Wildcats are playing shifted the talk to defense.
Calipari, however, wants to press rewind. He wants to go back to the platoon talk, though with, as he would surely put it, a tweak.
"The story, everybody wants to talk about defense, they all want to talk about the energy, the blocked shots and the length, and the story is you have 10 guys sharing minutes," Calipari said. "That's the whole story in a nutshell."
No offense, Coach Cal, but this team's story can't fit in a nutshell, not with the way the Cats have been smothering opponents.
The latest victim to succumb to UK's waves of depth and athleticism was UT Arlington. Top-ranked Kentucky moved to 6-0 with a dominant 92-44 victory, holding the visiting Mavericks (3-2) to 27-percent shooting and a mere 0.611 points per possession and leaving yet another opposing coach raving, this time about exactly the topic Calipari wants everyone talking about.
"They played the game the right way, that's what is really impressive, to be able to get all of those NCAA All-Americans to play together as a team with 10 different guys, that is impressive," Scott Cross said.
But that defense though.
UK allowed just 12 points in building a 43-point halftime advantage, the second-largest in school history behind only the 44-point lead the 1996 team had on LSU on the strength of an 86-point explosion. Astoundingly, UT Arlington made just four field goals in 32 attempts, compared with eight blocks for the Cats, as UK closed the half on a 42-5 run.
The performance would have been more remarkable if it wasn't so, well, commonplace for this team.
Six times in 12 halves now, UK has held its opponent under 20 points. The Cats have not yet allowed 40-percent shooting from the field in a game this season and opponents are shooting just 28.7 percent from 2-point range, good for second nationally. UK has 60 blocks to boot, and at least seven in every game this season.
"This team has a chance of being one of those teams you talk about defensively, like of all time, if they choose to be," Calipari said. "But they're going to have to choose to be that."
It seems they've already made that choice.
"Coach is a defensive guy," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had his first double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "He wants our offense to just (feed) off of our defense. So that's the biggest thing for us."
Towns, who upped his team-leading total to 21 blocks with three against UT Arlington, can remember hearing the old "defense wins championships" cliche throughout his youth, but it took coming to Kentucky for it to sink in.
"You're told that all the time in high school and middle school," Towns said. "You go to camps and stuff. But you don't really see that happening until you're in college. That's really the biggest thing. We're realizing that probably our biggest strength is our defense."
Calipari may have been the one who got the ball rolling with the defensive emphasis, but the players have taken over pushing it down the hill.
"I wouldn't say it's Cal that's getting us into it," said Devin Booker, who has made 12 of his last 17 3-point tries after pouring in 19 points on 5-of-6 shooting from deep on Tuesday. "It's us as a collective group, you know. We just want to lock teams down. We take pride in it."
Booker and the Cats have quite a bit to be proud of, having allowed 72 points in their last two games combined. Seventy-eight Division-I teams are allowing 72 points per game or more on average this season.
For a team with 10 players among ESPN's top 100 prospects for next June's draft to sustain the focus necessary to do that to two admittedly overmatched opponents, not to mention holding then-No. 5 Kansas to 40 points, is nothing short of incredible.
Uh oh, Coach Cal heard that.
"I'll come back to this: In this day and age, every one of these kids has pro aspirations and pro potential, and they're draftable players, and they're doing this for each other," Calipari said. "This is crazy. That's why I say, for anybody in our society, where everybody talks about the me and mine and narcissism and all that, why wouldn't you root for this to happen and be good? I don't understand why you wouldn't root for this?"
The Cats become even harder to root against once you hear Towns navigate his way around an extended metaphor expertly cooked up for Thanksgiving week.
"I would say that if your group is doing what it's supposed to do, then everyone should eat," Towns said. "That's the biggest thing. There's a lot of food out there to go get. All you gotta do is go grab a plate and just go get it. That's the biggest thing for all of us. We have the utensils."
How does UK's defense fit into mix?
"It seems like the buffet line starts there," Towns said.