LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky attended to task on the afternoon before Thanksgiving, using a pretty solid defensive effort throughout and a second-half surge by Julius Randle to pull away from Eastern Michigan 81-63 at Rupp Arena Wednesday. Nine thoughts on the Wildcats' win:
1. Only at UK could they pack the house for a 4 o'clock tipoff on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving for a game against Eastern Michigan. Black Friday? This was blue Wednesday. Official attendance count was 22,721, and that was legitimate.
2. Julius Randle picked up two quick fouls and didn't score in the first half, but he still finished with 14 points and 10 boards, to notch a double-double for the seventh time in seven games, the first UK player to do that since Jim Andrews began his career with seven straight double-doubles in 1971-72. The last player to have seven straight at any point was DeMarcus Cousins. Asked if he wondered at halftime if his streak was in jeopardy, Randle said, "Not really." Why? "I have confidence in my ability, and I knew I was going to get out there and work hard." EMU coach Rob Murphy said, "In the second half, Julius Randle imposed his will."
3. If Randle imposed his will, then Willie Cauley-Stein continues to impose his spirit on this UK team. He was supposed to start the game, but assistant coach John Robic filled out freshman Marcus Lee in the starting spot out of habit. Didn't matter to Cauley-Stein. The laid-back sophomore said he knew what to expect from the Eastern Michigan zone, and had a feel for how to score against it. "I've played them before, so I've been through it," Cauley-Stein said, in a statement heard rarely over the past several years at UK. But his main contribution was blocking everything in the second half. His seven blocks for the game, matching a career high, were the biggest difference in a close first half and a blowout second. If he's around the rim swatting things away, it makes up for a multitude of errors on the perimeter. He also added 15 points and eight rebounds.
4. Murphy described the challenge of playing against UK's height. "I think our game plan was solid, which was to make them shoot from the outside," he said. "But when they missed, they got rebounds. . . . We were trying to shoot over trees, so to speak. So we were getting our shots blocked. And any time that happens early in a game ... they don't get that out of their minds. Their size and athleticism made it tough on us on the interior. They did a great job protecting the paint and the rim, and we didn't make good decisions when we got it in there."
5. One (perhaps) overlooked facet of this game that is worth tucking away to remember: UK faced a pretty decent press for the first time this season. It wasn't a problem. While the Wildcats had 20 turnovers in the game, the press really wasn't a factor in creating them. He remarked on UK guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, "People say, they're not quick. But they understand basketball angles, and they're very good."
6. The win was UK's 500th in Rupp Arena history. I've shared, my first game in Rupp Arena was Senior Day, 1978. Those were some pretty good seniors -- Mike Phillips, Rick Robey, James Lee and Jack Givens. Since I began covering UK, it seems the program's highlights have been outside Rupp. I'd say the best UK game I ever covered there was the win over North Carolina when Anthony Davis got a dramatic blocked shot to steal the win. It remains, with all of the glitz and glamor starting to overtake venues, one place in America where basketball remains absolutely the prime attraction, and center stage.
7. This game may have established something of a template for UK that could serve it well moving forward. It's a team that still is finding its way offensively, but which has a ton of weapons. Three-point shooting hasn't been one of them consistently, but as Calipari remarked after the game, this team doesn't need to shoot the three to win. What it did, however, was lay down a base of defensive pressure. Watch this game side-by-side with the season-opener or one of the exhibitions and you'll be struck at how much better UK's defensive containment is from start to finish. The margin of this game came because of dogged defense in the second half, even if not always perfectly executed. In another month, this team will be dictating games defensively, if it continues to listen to Calipari. The coach, however, remains impatient. He doesn't like seeing players come out of their defensive stance. He says he's going to use an elementary approach to fix it.
"If you ever played, did you ever see when they used to tell you to put your hands behind your back and defend that way?" Calipari asked reporters. "That's how we were all taught. They made you put your hands behind your back, both hands, defend the guy if he's trying to go around you. The only thing you could do is move your feet. Guess what we're going to do? We're going back to that. You may say, 'That's seventh grade.' I don't really care. What we did prior to, legwork. Do you know what wall sits are? Do you know? So when you went away to camp, they sat you against a wall because you were a bad kid or whatever. My talk to the team before practice five, six minutes, they're wall sitting and they're carrying a 50-pound sack that they've got to pass to each other for like six minutes. Why? Because I can't get them into a defensive stance. At least seven minutes, they're going to be down. Then we did legwork. Remember when you're competing against the guy, slide, slide, slide? We did that. Now we're going to put lines on the court and you got to keep the guy in front of you and not let him around you with your hands behind your back. It's what we got to do."
8. Calipari admits he's been in a pretty big hurry to get his team up to speed, mainly because of the stretch of games coming. The Wildcats are facing some challenges ahead, Baylor, Providence, North Carolina, Boise State, Louisville. It's a legitimate stretch of schedule. But it can only help this team. The notion that a team of freshmen should arrive on campus ready to play and dominate everyone is counter to what college basketball is. Maybe if you had them for a two month camp before the season starts, like an Olympic team, you could fashion that type of team. Otherwise, what you get is what Calipari has. A group that has to learn nearly everything. Winning every game, for a group like this, not only isn't realistic, it's not important, nor even really beneficial. Calipari said he got a reminder of that from former UK coach Joe B. Hall this week. "Coach Hall made me feel really good yesterday. Said, 'Would you stop. You have the youngest team in the country. It's not always going to come on your terms. It will hit them at some point and you'll say, 'Wow, they're finally figuring it out.'" We're not there yet.
9. Hall will turn 85 years old on Saturday, but he got a special birthday treat Wednesday. Ashley Judd led the Rupp Arena crowd in a rendition of "Happy Birthday" during the second half. Certainly, Kentuckians have been fortunate to have had Hall around for these many years. Happy Thanksgiving to all.