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It's no slight to Grand Canyon or a Buffalo team that outplayed UK for 20 minutes, but Kansas is at a different level.
Entering the test against the Jayhawks, John Calipari sees two ways it can go.
"If we play like we did in the first half last game we will get smashed," Calipari said. "If we play like we did in the second half we have a chance because you have to fight on every possession."
UK got a lesson in exactly that in the aforementioned matchup with Buffalo.
The Cats (2-0) went into the break down 38-33, needing halftime to refocus after a first half in which Coach Cal said they were "disconnected." UK would overcome the slow start with a dominant second half, holding Buffalo to 14 points in four field goals in a 71-52 win.
Ahead of Tuesday's matchup with No. 5 Kansas (1-0) at approximately 9:30 p.m. in Indianapolis, the Cats know what's in store for them if they pull that Jekyll and Hyde act again.
"It is not like they didn't come to play; it was just that the other team came like a pack of hungry dogs," Calipari said. "Well, then you can't just say this is good enough. We are learning that. When we play with great energy and match the other team or go beyond the other team, we are long and athletic. But if they are blowing us out of the water with their energy it is going to look like it did."
Though Kansas doesn't match UK's depth, eight Jayhawks played 16 minutes or more in a season-opening 69-59 win over UC Santa Barbara, three of them freshmen and three sophomores. Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, both juniors, provide the experience for Kansas, while freshman Devonte' Graham came off the bench and led the Jayhawks with 14 points in 26 minutes.
"They are running their stuff," Calipari said. "They are doing a terrific job of doing what they do. I mean, they play a style and they play it well. They are playing hard and pressing and denying. They are pushing up on defense and trapping randomly at times. They are trapping pick and rolls. They are being very, very aggressive."
This marks the fourth edition of the State Farm Champions Classic and the second UK-KU matchup in the event, which Kentucky won 75-65 en route to the 2011-12 national title. Each of the last three years, Coach Cal talked of the Champions Classic game being too early for his young team. This year, he's singing a new tune.
"We are in a little different position than we have been in the past, where we have a brand-new team and trying to get your team together," Calipari said. "This team needs to be challenged to see where we are. This is going to be one of those kinds of games."
The stage, as well as the opponent, will dictate that.
The game will follow a matchup between No. 2 Duke and No. 19 Michigan State in a doubleheader played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers. It should come as surprise that both will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
"It's going to be crazy," Dakari Johnson said on Sunday. "I'm thinking it's going to be a big crowd. But we can't focus on the atmosphere. We have to go out there - it's two teams playing on the court - and we just have to compete."
Doing that will be even more of a challenge for freshmen Trey Lyles, who will be returning to his hometown to play in just the third matchup between ranked teams in college basketball this season and the first between top-five squads. Lyles will also be playing in the same building where he led Arsenal Tech to the first state title in the high school's history.
"It's been on my mind," Lyles said. "It's going to be fun. I get to play in front of family and friends. It's going to be a good time."
Managing emotions will be a challenge for Lyles, who's coming off a game in which he sparked a big second half with five points within a minute after halftime against Buffalo. He'll want to duplicate that effort on Tuesday without overdoing it.
"I just gotta go out there and do whatever is best for the team, playing defense and all that kind of stuff, whatever Coach asks of me," Lyles said. "It's just another game and we gotta approach it that way and approach it with a lot of energy."
UK lacked that energy in last year's Champions Classic, which led to a 10-point deficit within four minutes against Michigan State. The Cats return seven players who saw the floor in that game, but there's still no guarantee that translates.
"We could start out 10-0 the same way and it wasn't 10-0 we were up, it was 10-0 I had to call two timeouts to get it settled down," Calipari said. "I would hope these veterans understand what they are walking into, but teams are going to play like their life depends on it and we have to do the same."
As 2013-14 proved, these things don't happen overnight.
"Last year was, what, March 1 when we answered questions," Calipari said. "It took that long! There were five freshmen. 'Oh, but they're really good. You just roll out the balls. They should just win.' This stuff's hard, man. This stuff is hard. Now, I love it. I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't it any other way for our kids."
Even one of his assistants said it.
"Stop," Calipari told him, not revealing the coach's identity. "We're playing the way we play and we're figuring it out."
It was a good thing he stuck to his guns.
Coach Cal opened the second half with his second platoon as he has in two exhibitions and the season opener and the group responded. Riding a shot of energy from Trey Lyles, the Wildcats dominated the second half and moved to 2-0 with a 71-52 win over visiting Buffalo (1-1), allowing just 14 points on 4-of-19 shooting after the break.
Lyles got it started with a 3-pointer from the left wing. Moments later, he intercepted a pass near midcourt and raced to the rim for a thunderous dunk. In a matter of 42 seconds, he had erased that halftime deficit and breathed energy into the Rupp Arena crowd of 22,175.
"I just wanted to go out there and playing with energy in the second half and just try pick the team up, pick the spirits up," Lyles said. "That's what the second platoon was trying to do at the start of the second half."
For the game, Lyles would tie for the team high with 12 points, adding four rebounds, three assists and steal. The 6-foot-10 freshman came to Kentucky with a reputation as a rebounder and adept post scorer, but he's shown off a diverse game after returning from a foot injury that forced him to miss the summer and UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour.
"He's just learning to play fast, yet be in control," Calipari said. "He is a skilled 6-10, three/four. He can post you; he can make a jump shot. He's a pretty good passer."
Lyles was a power forward by trade before arriving in Lexington, but Kentucky's incredible post depth has moved him into more of a perimeter role. Working with and going up against a veteran teammate every day in practice, Lyles is finding his way.
"It's been an adjustment in practice and stuff like that, but I'm becoming more comfortable with it, me and Alex (Poythress) both," Lyles said. "Coach is really helping us and me and him are helping each other with playing it."
It's players like Dakari Johnson who have bumped Lyles to the three.
Johnson, along with Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, is one of the Cats standing 6-11 or 7-foot, and he joins Lyles on the second platoon. On Sunday, he also joined Lyles in providing a boost when his team badly needed it.
In spite of the new platoon system, Johnson played 26 minutes. He played more than that just once as a freshman. All the while, Johnson worked tirelessly, something he acknowledges he would not have been capable of before transforming his body this offseason.
"It just feels like while I'm out there I'm not getting tired as fast and I just try to get the crowd hyped and get my teammates hyped up, and that's what we did in the second half," Johnson said.
Johnson had nine points, 12 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and a steal, finishing a made free throw shy of what would have been his second double-double in as many games. He shot 3 of 6 from the charity stripe, leaving just one area for the sophomore to address.
"He fights," Calipari said. "He tries. He runs hard. He's giving everything that's in his body, and that's all you can ask as a coach."
The same can be said for another Wildcat who's pretty much Johnson's polar opposite when it comes to body type. Standing 15 inches shorter than Johnson, Tyler Ulis deftly ran the point, scoring 12 points, dishing six of UK's 17 assists and committing no turnovers.
Devin Booker, meanwhile, scored eight of his 10 points after halftime, meaning UK's top four scorers on Sunday came from the second platoon. That serves as proof that the platoon system is flexible enough to adjust on a game-by-game basis even though Calipari isn't going away from it.
If someone else is not playing well, they're going to be taken out," Calipari said. "If a unit is not playing well, I'll take them out. Every one of these kids had a chance. Now, if I had stuck with those first guys you never would've seen Trey, Devin, and Tyler do what they did. They all three played well today."
That wasn't the case for every Wildcat. Towns, for example, fouled out and scored just three points in 10 minutes of action, while Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting and one assist.
Those three figure to be among the players Coach Cal said he will summon for sit-downs before the Cats head to Indianapolis for an early-season marquee matchup with No. 5 Kansas. The conversations will be candid, with Calipari asking them to assess how they played and what they learned from it.
But unlike in prior seasons, the talks won't have as much urgency about them, not with the way Coach Cal's group is built.
"It's a great team for all these guys to just play hard," Calipari said. "Even if you don't play well, we're all right. Someone else will step in and be better the next game. Learn from it."
Air Force Senior Master Sergeant James A. Allegrezza was reunited with his wife and two children at Kentucky's game on Sunday. Allegrezza was born in Williamsport, Pa., and graduated from Woodford County High School in Versailles, Ky., in 1994. He enlisted in September 1995 as a Medical Services Apprentice.
Here's video of the reunion at Rupp Arena.
Here's video of the reunion at Rupp Arena.
"First half was good," Calipari said. "Second half was not good."
The first half saw UK suffocate Grand Canyon defensively and build a commanding 43-16 lead. The Wildcats (1-0) held the Antelopes (0-1) to 25 percent shooting and forced 13 turnovers. In the second half, Grand Canyon refused to back down, actually outscoring UK by two points through the first 13-plus minutes before the Cats finished strong for an 85-45 victory.
"I think the first half we played at a pretty good level," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who was all over the floor with 12 points, five rebounds, four blocks and two steals, 'and then the second half we kind of let go of the rope a little bit and didn't play as physical and as determined."
The physicality is what most caught Coach Cal's attention.
"The other thing that happened is it got physical and it became a little bit of a fight," Calipari said. "We had guys not be able to make plays. They walked, missed one footers when things got physical. That's going to be an issue for us."
On offense, the failure to respond to physicality manifested itself in post-ups that came too far away from the basket, which led to those misses from around the basket. With their depth, size and athleticism, the Cats were often able to grab their own misses, to the tune of 24 offensive rebounds and a 51-21 overall rebounding edge, but the issue remains.
On defense, UK struggled guarding dribble penetration after the break, which was clear within minutes. The second platoon of Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson, which held GCU scoreless in the first half, allowed six points on the first four possessions of the second half. Immediately, Coach Cal called for the first platoon to check back in.
"They came in, they scored too many buckets on us," Ulis said. "Like you said, we kept them to scoreless in the first half, but the second half we came out a little lazy. We got stuck on defense and they hit a couple (shots) on us. So he wanted to make an example and told us we would sit if we don't get stops."
It was the first of many lessons for the three freshmen on the second platoon. Minutes later, UK's fourth freshman, Karl-Anthony Towns, got a similar lesson when Coach Cal pulled him Johnson after a lapse of focus that led to a turnover.
Playing with a big lead, it turns out, isn't always easy.
"That's what we need to work on," Ulis said. "We have to come out still ready to fight. Just look at it as the score is zero to zero, just try to go out there and play and keep the pressure on."
Cauley-Stein is in his third year playing for Coach Cal and he's still working to put that message into action.
"It's tough," Cauley-Stein said. "And if you're young it makes it worse because you're not used to that. You're not used to playing at a level that Coach wants you to play at all the time. It just comes with the experience of playing the college-level game. As you get older, you realize what Coach is saying. It will just come."
The Cats experienced a measure of the adversity Coach Cal said they needed in that second half, which only figures to help as UK takes the floor again on Sunday at noon against Buffalo and then on Tuesday against No. 5 Kansas in the Champions Classic.
"They came out, they punched us in the mouth the second half, but we just have to keep going, learn from our mistakes and improve," Ulis said.
Cauley-Stein, however, says the real learning won't happen until later. He remembers last year's game against Michigan State well, when the Cats fell behind by double digits before the even scored a point.
"Once it gets harder, then dudes are going to find out that it's real, it's the whole game," Cauley-Stein said. "Especially if you come out flat and you get hit in the mouth first, it's rough. It's going to be a rough game after that. So you've got to come out and throw the first couple of blows and let them know you're here and you're going to find the rest of the game."
Even so, seeing what can happen when an opponent outmuscles them was a good learning experience for the Cats.
"It's good that it happened because we were able to talk about it and we'll show it on tape tomorrow," Calipari said.
And when you have a roster like Coach Cal does, you get to teach from the tape of a 40-point win.