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Lyles grew up logging many hours on the basketball court with his dad, working on shooting angles and the fundamentals of the game. He also watched tape of his favorite players and tried to mimic their every move.
The end result is a guy who is coming into his own on the biggest stage, averaging a team-high 11.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tournament. According to junior Willie Cauley-Stein, Lyles' emergence as a force was simply a matter of time.
"You knew it (in) workouts, you could see the talent level, you could see how he could be a huge factor on a team," Cauley-Stein said. "It's just the fact, when you learn to play in a college setting or play in the college game like that. It started in workouts. You could see him starting to take over a workout or him embracing being tired and being fatigued and still making shots and still doing stuff that's not normal."
And now the guy UK head coach John Calipari routinely labels as Kentucky's X-Factor is causing excruciating headaches to opposing defenses and offenses due to his size and athleticism.
"For his size, the things that he does, I'm saying it again, he's the X-Factor for us," Coach Cal said after UK's first rout of Arkansas. "He's the one that makes us go from pretty good, really good, to uh-oh, what is this I'm watching?"
His favorite player is Kobe Bryant, and his game resembles both a blend of the athletic, 6-foot-6 guard and 6-11 forward Tim Duncan, known as the Big Fundamental. This all makes perfect sense, since the 6-10 Lyles is a natural four playing as a three for the Wildcats.
"Kobe is my favorite player so I watch him a lot," Lyles said. "I watch his workout tapes, highlights and stuff like that. Try to learn from guys. Then again, Tim Duncan is another guy I learned from just being fundamentally sound, learning how to use footwork and angles off the glass, stuff like that."
Cauley-Stein says Lyles has an "old-man game" with the way he doesn't get sped up and with how smooth he plays.
"Plays angles and knows how to use his body," Cauley-Stein said. "You can't really teach it. It's something that you acquire over time."
Against Notre Dame, a team known for its 3-point shooting and offensive prowess, Lyles' defense and offense will both be called upon for Kentucky to advance to back-to-back Final Fours. Only this Final Four would be even more special for the Indianapolis native.
"It would mean a lot," Lyles said. "It would be a great moment for me and my family. It would be exciting to be able to play on that stage in front of a home crowd and stuff like that. It would be exciting.
"I said I wanted to win a national championship in Indy. Now we have the opportunity to do that, but we have to make sure we get there first."
Wildcats, Irish show mutual respect before showdown
Against West Virginia, the trash talk from the Mountaineers prior to the two teams' Sweet-16 showdown fueled the Wildcats' fire in a big way. The end result was a UK rout, as the Cats jumped out to an early lead and kept their foot down throughout the game en route to winning 78-39, tying a Sweet 16 record for margin of victory.
Either Notre Dame saw what happened when you poke the bear - err, Wildcats - or the Irish just go about their business in a different manner. Either way, the trash talk from the Sweet 16 didn't carry over to the Elite Eight.
"Everyone talks about their size but if you look at Kentucky's team overall, they're a fabulous team," senior swingman Pat Connaughton said. "In the way they're unselfish, the way they always talk about how they have nine McDonald's All-Americans, and none of them really care about their stats; they care about winning. So they're the true testament of a team."
"They're really good," sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said. "They've got tall guys inside, they've got tall guys on the perimeter, they're just really good all over."
"You just know you're going to have to bring your A game," senior All-America guard Jerian Grant said. "When a team is that dominant, you can't mess around with the game, you can't come out and not be ready to play from the jump."
Kentucky, for its part, showed similar praise when asked to assess their upcoming matchup with the Irish, which sport the second most efficient offense in the country.
"Notre Dame is a great offensive team," Andrew Harrison said, "it's going to be a big challenge."
"They're one of the best 2-point shooting teams and one of the best 3-point shooting teams and one of the most efficient teams in the country," Coach Cal said. "They score in bunches, they can score at the rim, layups, post-ups. They can score on breakdowns. But what I've seen in the last five games is they're really defending. They're playing more physical, they're playing tougher, their rotations are tighter and I think that's why they've gone on this run, because now they can get to 75, 80, and they make it hard for you to do it now."
Willie Cauley-Stein says the lack of trash talk isn't a problem though, and that with a berth into the Final Fourth on the line, looking for an extra edge isn't necessary.
"I think guys are self-motivated," Cauley-Stein said, "and I think guys know exactly how they see themselves playing in the game and going to the game ready to play and take care of business."
Aaron Harrison gives update on finger
Much of Thursday night's demolition of West Virginia was a beautiful sight for Big Blue Nation. Not everything was so pretty though when Aaron Harrison reached for the ball early in the second half and pulled back to reveal his left ring finger wasn't in the exact place it was supposed to be.
"It was awful," Coach Cal said, "and then I kept looking like, is that his right hand or is that his left hand, I couldn't figure it out, and he said left, I said you're good, tape that thing up. And I put him back in, I just wanted him to take a shot or two like to make sure he would feel OK."
After the game, Harrison said his hand was fine and he would definitely play against the Fighting Irish. On Friday, he echoed those sentiments and said he didn't expect it to play a big role Saturday evening.
"It's a little sore but it's not going to be a big factor in the game," Harrison said. "I'm doing a lot better and continue to get treatment and things like that."
Cats playing with something to prove
At 37-0, Kentucky has tied the 10th-ongest winning streak in NCAA Division I men's basketball history. It's also set an NCAA record for the best start to a season in history.
Not bad, right?
Except, Aaron Harrison said there's more left to prove for the Cats. Much more.
"We just want to prove that we're one of the best teams ever," Harrison said. "Just to prove that I think we definitely need to win a national title. That's our goal and that's what we're working for."
As everyone saw, it did just fine, doubling up the Mountaineers 78-39 in front of a sold-out Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night.
Now just one game away from its fourth Final Four berth in the past six seasons, the question for Kentucky has reversed from how its offense will handle the opposition's defense, to how the Wildcats' defense will do against Notre Dame's offense.
"Defense is our first priority as a team and that's what we pride ourselves in is being a defensive team," freshman forward Trey Lyles said. "I think that tomorrow going out against a great offensive team is just going to pick it up even more for us."
That defense was on full display against West Virginia. UK scored 18 of the game's first 20 points and held the Mountaineers to just 19.2-percent shooting in the first half. The second half wasn't much better, as West Virginia didn't hit a basket in the second half until 8:42 had ticked off the clock.
Such numbers aren't expected again against the Irish. Notre Dame enters Saturday's showdown third nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, is the No. 1 2-point shooting team in the country, is No. 2 in effective field-goal percentage and No. 3 in offensive turnover percentage.
"They're very precise," Lyles said. "They run their plays, they run everything they're supposed to, to the pinpoint. We just have to go out there and try to disrupt it in any way we can."
After Notre Dame shot 75 percent in the second half against Wichita State and hit nine 3-pointers in the Sweet 16, junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said Kentucky would have to try to hold them to about half that number.
Two big cogs - literally - in doing that will be he and Lyles. While Cauley-Stein's defensive prowess is well documented, Lyles' defense has paired up quite nicely with the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year to form a formidable 6-foot-10 and 7-foot perimeter defense.
"I think I've grown a lot in the defensive aspect of my game having to run around and guard guys who are 6-foot and 6-5, stuff like that," Lyles said. "I feel like defensively my game has developed a lot more than any other area."
He and Cauley-Stein will likely have to face Notre Dame All-America guard Jerian Grant and swingman Pat Connaughton at points during the game, who combined to average 29.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game.
"It's going to bring that competitiveness out," Cauley-Stein said. "But then it's also going to make you cautious. They got the reputation of being a really good offensive team. Well, we got the reputation of being a really good defensive team."
By really good defensive team, Cauley-Stein means historically good. Currently, Kentucky's defense ranks No. 1 nationally in adjusted efficiency, effective field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage, and No. 2 in 2-point percentage and block percentage.
Not to be forgotten, the Cats have the sixt- most efficient offense, averaging 115.4 points per 100 possessions. So how do you stop a team with such balance?
"I don't know if someone has to play a perfect game," UK head coach John Calipari said. "My team knows that every team that's left playing can beat us, we know that. Somebody talked about perfection. We're not perfect; we're undefeated. I mean, we should have lost five or six games. I mean, easily could have lost those games. And we were lucky enough to win, stay undefeated. We're not perfect."
In order for UK's record to remain perfect it will have to continue to guard the 3-point line with the same stingy effort that it has all season. The Irish average over eight made 3-pointers per game while hitting over 39 percent of its attempts. Connaughton averages 2.49 3s per game by himself, and has hit 42.6 percent of his attempts, while Demetrius Jackson is a 43.2-percent outside shooter and V.J. Beachem has hit 41.6 percent and Steve Vasturia is hitting 40.6 percent.
"I think that we just have to force them to drive and take tough 2s because, really, it's tough to take 2s against us," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "I think a team could beat us by hitting a lot of 3s, if we let them take 'em. So that's why we're definitely pressuring them and making them drive."
The differences between Notre Dame and West Virginia aren't limited to each team's offensive abilities. While West Virginia led the country in fouls per game, Notre Dame commits the sixth fewest.
With all that said, Coach Cal said Kentucky will stick to what it has all year: itself, and being the best version of themselves.
"You know, the thought of playing fast or pressing, playing slower, I don't know. How do you play when you play your best?" Coach Cal said in regards to the season-long question of how a team must play in order to beat Kentucky. "But here's the great thing, our team's not worried about that, we just don't want to help them. So let's make sure we're at our best, we're the best version of ourselves, we know how we want to play. ... this is the same kind of game, you can't help Notre Dame. If you do, you're going to lose because they're that good."
The 6-foot-11 freshman has turned into a dominant force the last two months of the season and his Kentucky team has come to rely on him.
But on Thursday night, the Wildcats got but a point and two rebounds from Towns, spelling trouble for their quest for a national title and a 40-0 season, right?
Instead, the Cats tied a Sweet 16 record for margin of victory with a 78-39 throttling of West Virginia.
"It's one of those things that, not many people in the country could ever say that they played the way I played and still come out and win by 39," Towns said.
With Towns limited to 13 minutes by foul trouble and general ineffectiveness, John Calipari instead turned to Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. The two sophomores answered the bell, combining for 16 points and 11 rebounds.
"Karl gave us ugats," Calipari said, breaking out some Italian slang, "nothing, and we still win big because of those two, and that's because we're playing them."
To Towns' credit, he was able to relish his team's success even though it came as he took a step back individually.
"That just shows you how deep and how much my brothers had my back," Towns said. "I think that's the blessing. You can't look at individual success. This is the tournament. Individual success doesn't matter. It matters what the team does."
Kentucky, however, is best when Towns is at his best. And to survive third-seeded Notre Dame and advance to the Final Four, it's likely Towns will need to regain his late-season form.
On a team with an historic level of talent and depth, Towns scored double figures in 10 of 16 outings prior to West Virginia. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds during the stretch, surging to win Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors.
His teammates expect to see that player back on the floor in Quicken Loans Arena against Notre Dame.
"Karl's a competitor so I expect him to do big things this next game," Willie Cauley-Stein said.
That's due in part to the fact that his coach demands it of him.
"I've been harder on him than anybody on this team, but I told him at the beginning of the year, it would be that way because he had a long way to go," Calipari said. "But I saw his upside being the best big guy in the country, and I'm not settling for anything else."
Neither Towns nor his family would have it any other way.
"When he gets off point, I'm right there, but after the game I get a text from his dad: 'Stay on him, don't let up, Coach,' " Calipari said. "Not: 'Get him more shots, play him more minutes.' That's the greatest thing about coaching these kids, they trust us that we're about them, we're about them getting better individually, that I want every one of them to shine, I want every one of them to be talked about. And so when they have a game like that and we still win, kind of takes the pressure off you."
On the season, Towns is averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. Solid, but not the kind of eye-popping statistics typical of a player in contention to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Towns, playing just 20.7 minutes per game, has the perspective necessary to understand why.
"It hasn't hurt any of us," Towns said. "I mean, it's not about the minutes we get, it's about what we do with those minutes."
Towns will look to be a little more effective with his minutes Saturday night, but that's still not even his primary concern.
"I think that's the biggest joy I have: the fact I still get to play with my brothers," Towns said. "We love each other tremendously. It's just one of those things that it's not even the fact of playing another game. It's about who you're playing another game with. I've been given an opportunity to play another game with my brothers and we get to go back out there and lace up our shoes again and hopefully we get to do it again for several more times."
On the eve of the Elite Eight, he revealed another facet to what it was like being relegated to spectator status.
"It was a weight off your shoulders though, knowing you're not going to have any impact on the game playing," Cauley-Stein said. "So that worry, that stress, you didn't have to endure that."
Unable to play due to a stress fracture in his ankle that knocked him out of UK's Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville and had him in plainclothes for the Elite Eight and Final Four, Cauley-Stein admits there was part of him that enjoyed just being along for the ride.
A year later, he has no such chance.
Cauley-Stein is the upperclassman leader and defensive anchor for top-seeded Kentucky as the Wildcats carry a 37-0 mark into an Elite Eight showdown with Notre Dame at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. Night in and night out, the 7-foot junior draws the toughest defensive assignment and carries an ever-growing offensive load.
In short, whether UK makes its fourth Final Four trip under John Calipari will be up to Cauley-Stein as much as anyone. Different as it may be from last year, it's exactly where he wants to be.
"It feels good," Cauley-Stein said. "You just embrace it. You can't be scared of it. You can't be scared of the moment that we're in."
Whenever Cauley-Stein feels the fear, he needs only reflect on where he was two years ago.
Then, he had just seen his freshman season unceremoniously end in the first round of the NIT. After that loss at Robert Morris, Cauley-Stein said he was on a mission to render it a distant memory.
The mission continues.
"I feel like I'm on a mission," Cauley-Stein said. "I said that day after we lost, I have never won a championship before. I've never won anything, any crazy awards and I'm back to fill that spot in my heart, that emptiness. And crazy enough, it's happening. Never thought it would happen like this, but it's really happening. It's crazy to think that two years ago I was just talking. And now I'm living it, and it's sensational."
The crazy awards - national defensive player of the year, All America - are certainly coming and Cauley-Stein already has two conference titles under his belt, but the championship he really wants is three wins away. Third-seeded Notre Dame, which put on an offensive clinic in shooting 75 percent in the second half of an 81-70 Sweet 16 win over Wichita State, is the first hurdle.
The Fighting Irish (32-5), rated third nationally in offensive efficiency, will be the best offense UK has faced all season. Kentucky, of course, is first in defensive efficiency , pitting two of the best units in the game against one another.
"It's going to bring that competitiveness out," Cauley-Stein said. "But then it's also going to make you cautious. They got the reputation of being a really good offensive team. Well, we got the reputation of being a really good defensive team. ... It's just one of those things that you'll know when the ball gets thrown up whether you think you can play the guy or not."
For Cauley-Stein, the answer will surely be yes. The question, however, is who he'll actually guard.
Notre Dame has just one regular who stands taller than 6-foot-8 - 6-10 Zach Auguste - and often plays three 6-5 players at the same time. Almost all of them can shoot, with four players hitting 40 percent or better from 3-point range.
Not included in that group is star 6-5 point guard Jerian Grant, who averages a team-best 16.4 points per game and 6.7 assists. Could Cauley-Stein see time on him? Is sharpshooter and leading rebounder Pat Connaughton his more likely cover? Or what about any of the other five players averaging 6.4 points per game or more?
"We're going to get everybody's best, so them having five guys who can be a threat to us just opens up our defense," Cauley-Stein said. "It's going to put more pressure on our defense to play better and accept that challenge."
It's a challenge Cauley-Stein will be happy to accept considering he didn't have the choice a year ago.
"I think this means a lot to him," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "He didn't get to experience it last year, and who would have known what would have happened last year if he was playing. I know he has a chip on his shoulder because he wants to go out there and he wants to prove that we can win it."
That desire started long before he ever had to sit out during last year's NCAA Tournament.
"Playing in your backyard and you're thinking of these moments, taking a last-second shot and shooting maybe the last free throws of the game and if you make them then you win, if you miss you lose," Cauley-Stein said. "That's that pressure that you put on yourself all when you were growing up. This is it now. This is the time to put it together."
Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns
Aaron Harrison and Trey Lyles
Tyler Ulis and Dakari Johnson
CLEVELAND - There was still almost the entire second half to play, but the celebration was already on for Kentucky fans at Quicken Loans Arena en route to a 78-39 win over West Virginia.
The Wildcats (37-0) had built a lead of 29 points and appeared poised to coast through the final 16-plus minutes, until Aaron Harrison doubled over in pain. With 16:39 left, Harrison left the floor hunched over. The team trainer met him and draped a towel over his hand and the two hurried into the tunnel.
Fans watching at home reported his ring finger was bent grotesquely and for a brief moment those who had been jubilant just seconds prior pondered life without the clutch sophomore guard.
But seconds later, Harrison reemerged and rejoined his team on the bench. Minutes later, he checked back in.
"It's fine," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "He played. He went back in and played so he's good."
Officially, Harrison's injury was a dislocated finger. He didn't even allow the trainer to pop it back into place for him.
"I had no choice," Harrison said. "I just felt like I needed to get it back, so I just pulled it."
Treating an injury himself only figures to add to Harrison's still-growing NCAA Tournament legend, a legend he says he will most certainly be looking to add to come Saturday at 8:49 p.m. against Notre Dame.
"I'm playing Saturday," said Harrison, who scored 10 of his 12 points in a barrage to start Thursday's blowout win.
Making that easier is the fact that the injury is to his non-shooting hand. When Harrison checked back in his finger was heavily taped and he had direct orders not to drive to the basket. John Calipari just wanted him to get a live shot or two under his belt to build his comfort level.
"I mean it was different to have something on my left hand when I tried to shoot it, but I'll figure a way out," Harrison said. "I'm definitely playing Saturday."
When Harrison checked out for the final time against West Virginia with eight minutes left, Calipari extended his hand to give a high-five. Harrison went across his body to oblige with his right hand, saving his left the trouble.
He also had a couple quick words for his coach.
"I just told him, 'I can still shoot, Coach,' " Harrison said. " 'So I'm good.' "
Andrew Harrison's and-one highlights UK's demolition
The game was over. In fact, it had been over for quite some time. But the highlights weren't and Andrew Harrison still had one play he wanted to perform.
With 6:20 left in the game, the sophomore point guard got his opportunity and didn't disappoint.
Leading 67-32, Harrison read West Virginia's Jevon Carter and picked off his pass intended for Juwan Staten. Harrison raced down the right side of the floor before Carter ran in front of him. That's when things turned silly.
"That was crazy," Tyler Ulis said. "It shows you what type of night we were having."
The type of night UK was having was one where Harrison was able to put the ball behind his back without bouncing it, reminiscent of another former Kentucky point guard in John Wall, and then throw the ball up backwards as he fell to the ground as he was being fouled.
Of course the ball then banked high off the backboard and into the hoop. New score: Kentucky 69, West Virginia 32. Andrew Harrison 1, Sanity 0.
"That's gonna be a top-10 play," Ulis said.
Harrison could only smile from ear to ear as he bounced up immediately after the play and was swarmed by his teammates.
In the grand scheme of things, it was just a three-point play - after the made free throw - that put the Cats up by 38 points with 6:20 remaining, but it was one that caught the attention of the Cats' leader in highlight reel plays, Willie Cauley-Stein, who said Harrison had called the play earlier in the game.
"Crazy," Cauley-Stein said. "He called it. We were sitting on the bench and he was like, 'I should have went behind the back on that,' and I was like, 'Yeah, bro. Do it next time.' He kind of sat there and I'm like, 'Nah, he's not gonna do it.' I was just talking him into it, 'Yeah, bro, do it.' Dude does it! I'm like, 'Dude!' And made the layup. That was crazy. I stopped. I stopped at half court. I thought it was going to be a foul or he was going to miss it, but he ended up making it. I was like, 'This dude really called that shot.' "
But was it a better play than some of Cauley-Stein's dunks, including his poster vs. Cincinnati in the Round of 32?
"Probably more acrobatic," Cauley-Stein said.
Booker finds his stroke
Nitpickers needed only look as far as Devin Booker to find a flaw with UK's postseason run.
The freshman sharpshooter had gone cold in March, hitting a combined 10 of 30 from the field and 3 of 16 from 3 in tournament play. Even though Kentucky had cruised to double digit wins in all five of those outings, Booker would need to find his form for the Cats to hit their peak.
He did just that Thursday night.
"He had to tighten it up," Calipari said. "He got a little loose with his shot, and when you do that and you start missing, it goes the other way on you fast, but I thought today he was terrific."
Booker scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including a perfect 3 of 3 in the first half. He also hit a pair of 3-pointers before halftime for his first makes from outside the arc in the NCAA Tournament. In spite of the cold spell, his teammates never lost confidence in him.
"We've seen that all the time," Towns said. "We're used to seeing that. Anytime he shoots it, we think it's going in. It's nothing new to us."
It's that confidence that has helped carry Booker through.
"This team helped me throughout my slump that I was in," Booker said. "They told me to keep shooting. Once I see one go down, the rest will fall. It's just been a lot of hard work and a lot of confidence that my team's given me and it just ended up falling tonight."
Towns sits down, Johnson steps up
Towns has made a late-season push into contention for the top spot in many projections of this summer's NBA Draft. He's become a go-to guy for Kentucky in the process, delivering big baskets when the Cats need them most.
Considering that, you'd think Towns' one-point, two-rebound, 13-minute line on Thursday night might spell trouble for the top seed in the Midwest Region.
This, however, is not your normal team.
As soon as Towns sat down with foul trouble, Dakari Johnson stepped up.
"That's something he always can do," Towns said. "It's a blessing to have people like him on our team. No matter what happens, there's no bench on our team. Just reinforcements."
Johnson might not have seemed on paper to be suited to play against high-pressure, up-tempo West Virginia, but the 7-foot sophomore carved out a role for himself in his 24 minutes - the most he's played in two months - and plenty of space. Johnson finished with 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
"What Dakari did was like, wow, you could play without Karl. Well, Dakari was really good today."
Like the rest of his teammates, Marcus Lee was locked in.
Facing West Virginia's press, Lee saw his man was leaving an opening for a drive to the basket and a lob pass, so he told Tyler Ulis about it. Seeing the situation play out just as Lee said it would, Ulis fed Lee perfectly for a dunk that gave the Wildcats their final points in a game-opening 18-2 run.
The only problem was no one told Booker about it.
"Only me and Tyler kind of knew what was happening so Devin still made that cut-through," Lee said. "We kind of ran into each other and didn't realize what was happening."
Poster dunks have become a common occurrence for this Kentucky team, but not with fellow Cats as the victims. Lee and Booker still had no trouble enjoying it afterward.
"We laughed about it," Lee said. "We were looking at pictures and videos about it after the game."
"Enough talking, let's ball!" he said.
Over five months later, those same four words would have been quite applicable.
After Wednesday's media opportunities, many of the stories centered on Mountaineers' freshman guard Daxter Miles Jr.'s comments in which he said the Cats would be 36-1 and that he didn't think they played hard.
Instead of biting at the bait, UK simply listened, and on Thursday night the Mountaineers heard plenty as the top-seeded Wildcats put together as impressive a performance as they've had all season in doubling up West Virginia 78-39 to advance to the Elite Eight.
"I was really pleased with the energy of our team," Coach Cal said. "I was pleased with how zoned in they were."
Oh, there was no need to worry about the Cats being zoned in for this game.
They say to never poke a sleeping bear. In spite of the difference in species, the same concept applies to this group of Wildcats. When they hear chatter, they may stay quiet, but they listen and they remember. After Thursday's win in which UK (37-0) became the first team in Sweet 16 history to double up its opponent, a lot of folks will remember.
"I don't know why they would do that at all," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said, who hit each of his first four shots in the game. "I guess they woke us up.
"We were super motivated. ... That (talk) was fuel to the fire. And we just wanted to go out there and make a statement to them and the rest of the country."
It wasn't the first time a team has chosen to talk a bit of trash to Kentucky before facing the undefeated squad though. Arkansas twice talked to Kentucky this season. The end results were a 17-point victory at Rupp Arena in which the Cats once led by 31, and a 15-point victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in which the Cats had led by 21. UK never trailed in any of the three games, including Thursday's romp.
"I think you could probably sneak up on us if you didn't talk anything before," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said.
Which brings up the season-long question yet again: How do you beat Kentucky? Perhaps a start is to not say anything whatsoever to the Cats prior to tipoff.
"If they didn't do that you're probably just going to coast into the game and not really be focused on it," Cauley-Stein said. "You're just going to let it come to you. But when you hear that type of stuff you're focused for the whole preparation. All the hard practices you're thinking of that type of stuff. That's what gets you going, especially this team. We have a bunch of competitive dudes so you hear that type of stuff and you're like, 'Nah, we have to show them who they are and what they are.' "
One of the strategies thrown out by many, and predicted by some in the media to be successful, was West Virginia's press. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, the famed "Press Virginia" appeared to look more stressed with UK scoring quickly and easily (UK shot 60.9 percent in the first half).
And again, the doubt of how Kentucky's guards would handle the WVU press was another source of motivation for Aaron Harrison and others.
"We consider ourselves the best guards in the country and for a team to say they can press us and we won't be able to pass the ball and things like that, we thought that was really dumb and ridiculous," Aaron Harrison said.
"I hope not," Cauley-Stein said when asked if he thinks this will put to rest the notion that UK struggles when facing the press. "I hope teams continue to press us."
The Cats used the Mountaineers' talk not only in the game, but in their preparation as well.
"I knew it was going to be like this," Ulis said. "We've been talking about it all day."
The Cats scored 18 of the game's first 20 points and held the Mountaineers scoreless for nearly seven minutes as West Virginia didn't connect on its second field goal of the game until eight minutes and 42 seconds had elapsed. By halftime, UK led 44-18, marking the lowest point total by the Mountaineers all season.
Instead of easing its foot off the gas - or throat, as UK referred to it - Kentucky remained focused and only added to its record-breaking performance in the second half by not allowing a West Virginia field goal for the opening 8:18.
"That was up there with like the Kansas game and the UCLA game where we came out and tried to put our foot on their throat and just keep going," freshman guard Tyler Ulis said.
But was it the most impressive performance of the season? Cauley-Stein said it may still be too early to say.
"Could be," said Cauley-Stein, who finished with eight points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and one steal. "I mean, we still have some games left."
The words coming out of the Mountaineer locker room made into every story previewing Kentucky and West Virginia's matchup. Daxter Miles Jr.'s guarantee that West Virginia would hand the Cats their first loss even made SportsCenter.
The Cats, meanwhile, responded with the equivalent of a silent head nod.
Andrew Harrison broke out his trademark dry sense of humor. Karl-Anthony Towns said everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Willie Cauley-Stein had the most dramatic reaction, but even he would only say the comments added "fuel to the fire."
The Cats, no doubt, preferred to let their play do the talking.
And their play talked plenty loud Thursday night.
"We've been talking about it all day," Tyler Ulis said. "Coming out and just demolishing them 'cause they were talking so much trash saying we were gonna be 36-1 and stuff like that. We felt like that was nonsense, so we just came out and killed 'em."
In a season full of devastating performances, the Cats delivered one of their best yet on the biggest stage yet. With a 78-39 destruction of the Mountaineers, UK moved to 37-0 and into the Elite Eight, and tied an NCAA Tournament record for the largest margin of victory in a Sweet 16 game.
"I was really pleased with the energy of our team," John Calipari said. "I was pleased with how zoned in they were, with how we were going to attack the press, how we were going to finish and we were going to just, hey, if we could score a hundred, score a hundred, just play."
For a while, the Cats seemed like they might threaten the century mark.
Within the first eight minutes, UK built an 18-2 lead. Aaron Harrison, scoring 10 points, chased away any worries about outside shooting woes lingering from last week's win over Cincinnati or Kentucky's 2010 Elite Eight loss to West Virginia by burying a pair of 3-pointers.
Harrison would finish with just 12 points and briefly departed with a dislocated finger, but the tone was set and West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins' fears realized.
"Well, I think pretty much what I was afraid could happen," Huggins said. "They shot the ball really poorly the last game, and they're too good to have probably back-to-back bad days shooting the ball, and they came out and made a bunch of shots."
Rendering West Virginia's full-court pressure wholly ineffective, UK committed just 10 turnovers for the game and shot a scalding 60.9 percent from the field in building an insurmountable 44-18 lead.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, were flummoxed on offense. They shot 24.1 percent from the field for the game and at one point had made just 5-of-37 attempts. All told, they managed just 0.582 points per possession and their 39 points were a season low. UK, meanwhile, blocked seven shots.
"I feel like on some of their rebounds they try to go back up with it and they had three dudes blocking their shot," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "That kind of gets to you like, 'Dang, I can't even get a rebound and a layup. I have three dudes with their hands on the ball.' "
UK added seven steals, snagging a few in using a full-court press that actually one-upped the Mountaineers'. The Cats had a turnover margin of plus-three.
"An old friend of mine says you press a pressing team, you press a pressing team," Calipari said. "And that's why we put in the diamond press and that's why we did some of the stuff we did, just to press them to go like you're not going to be the aggressor; we're going to be the aggressor, too."
UK has always had the press in its arsenal, but overall excellence has been its defensive calling card all season. Huggins, to put it mildly, has noticed.
"They're just -- they're terrific defensively," Huggins said. "They've got -- that's the best defensive team I think that I've ever coached against."
The Cats' offense might not be good on a historical level in the way their defense is, but it's not too shabby either.
"I thought they were the best offensive team in the country," Huggins said. "Everybody kind of gets caught up in their size and all that, which is certainly a part of it, but to get those guys to play as hard and to play together the way they do, I mean, you look down there, you've got guys that, you know, are going to be lottery picks that they give the ball up, they share the ball."
Six players combined for UK's 13 assists on 24 made field goals, while more good passes helped lead to the Cats' 31 free-throw attempts, of which they hit 26. Trey Lyles hit 6-of-7 tries from the line in pacing UK with 14 points, while Andrew Harrison scored nine of his 13 points at the line. Two of the remaining four came on the highlight of the night, a dizzying behind-the-back and-one finish in the open floor destined for highlight reels.
"That was smooth," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I've never seen something like that before, especially on a stage like this. That just shows you how loose we are."
Towns might have been a little too loose, picking up two fouls in eight first-half minutes and his third and fourth within the first minute of the second half. Talked about as the possible top pick in June's NBA Draft, Towns managed just one point and two rebounds.
Imagine, then, what Thursday's performance looks like with Towns performing at his peak.
"We still gotta work on a lot of things," Towns said. "This team, just because we came out and had a great win today doesn't mean that we're at full capability and working on all cylinders."
UK will take its next shot at reaching its peak on Saturday at 8:49 p.m. against third-seeded Notre Dame, which dispatched Wichita State with a near-perfect second-half offensive effort.
"We just have to come out the same way, with the same intensity knowing that they're going to try to shoot a lot of 3s on us, they're going to try to win it at the 3-point line, but that's been the same way all year round," Cauley-Stein said. "Teams have to shoot well at the 3, so our game plan is just going to guard them at the 3, make sure they make half the 3s they made tonight. Just play with a lot of intensity because it's a big deal."