LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky basketball team played perhaps its best overall game Sunday night, turning back Providence 79-65 in the Barclays Center in New York. Nine thoughts:
1. Pound it inside. This seems a lost art in college basketball sometimes. I watch it all the time, perimeter players dribbling, passing, moving the ball around the outside of zones, without ever throwing an entry pass to an open post player who has worked his rear end off to get position. Apparently, I'm not the only one who notices this. UK coach John Calipari said after the win, "Kenny Payne has been all over me, because I've been saying this is the best post-up team I've ever coached. And he said, 'Well then jam it in versus zone. Quit doing all this fancy stuff and just throw it in there.' So we've been working on it. And that's why we shot such a high percentage, and then what happens? Our guards now have gaps to drive, they have kick-outs for open shots."
Here's the interesting thing. When Providence went zone, UK made a concerted effort to pound the ball inside to Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle on three straight possessions. None of those post entries resulted in scores by the big men, but they were still enough to draw the Providence zone down low enough to give the Wildcats a little space. And as the game wore on, the Wildcats found more success down low. The result was 64.3 percent shooting for the game. The Wildcats missed only five shots in the second half (11-for-16).
2. Willie Cauley-Stein had his best game as a Wildcat. I wrote after the Eastern Michigan game that Cauley-Stein is imposing his spirit on this UK team, but clearly, he's more than just an emotional leader. Randle is a star. But Cauley-Stein looked like the best NBA player on the court tonight. That will change night to night with the Wildcats, but Cauley-Stein is clearly catching up to the learning curve. He's the biggest matchup problem on the team, literally. He changed shots that he wasn't anywhere near, finishing with nine blocks -- more than Anthony Davis ever had in a game.
"What is Willie doing different?" Calipari said. "He's playing harder, longer. He's never played this many minutes, and he's never played hard for this many minutes. But he's doing it in practice. He's pushing himself through comfort levels, and that's what I'm trying to get all these guys to do."
3. Aaron Harrison is a good basketball player who often is lost amid others on this team. But Calipari singled him out before anyone in his postgame comments. "He's the one that changed the game because he went in and guarded (Bryce) Cotton in the second half and he guarded him. He wanted to guard him. Andrew (Harrison) couldn't guard him. He kept stopping, getting hung up on screens. Andrew went in and said, 'I'm guarding him.'" Harrison also added 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
4. Julius Randle's streak of double-doubles ended at seven games. So he'll start a new one. He's already drawing so much attention offensively that he's going to have to work hard on his passing game, but he made a few nice decisions with the ball down low, and wound up with four assists and only two turnovers, which is progress. "I still think Julius is getting roughed up a little bit," Calipari said. "But he's so big and physical I think they just say, 'He's too big, we're not calling that.' But I thought he did well."
5. The Wildcats attempted 19 fewer shots than Providence and still won going away because of efficiency and shot selection. UK missed only 15 shots in the entire game. Calipari credited one thing: "We didn't shoot threes. Less is more, I told them," Calipari said. "Doron Lamb was the best three-point shooter that I've coached, and the most he would take is five. These guys were trying to get up eight threes. You can't play this way." UK went 6-of-8 from beyond the arc and was credited with only six fast-break points. That kind of half-court offensive efficiency is one thing that made the 2012 team so difficult to beat.
6. Calipari said UK's defensive improvement is due in part to some elementary drills he's been using with his team. Wall-sits, for example, to force the players down into a defensive stance. And making them play defense with their hands behind their backs. "We're doing that, and they're, 'Coach this is the greatest thing.' I'm saying, 'No one ever did this to you? What did you play zone your whole life?' This is eighth-grade stuff, but that's all right, because that's where we are."
7. Providence coach Ed Cooley summed UK up this way: "When they mature, they can be really, really scary."
8. UK used a seven-player rotation. Dakari Johnson got four minutes, and Marcus Lee was credited with zero-plus. For the most part, it was the five starters, plus Alex Poythress and Dominique Hawkins. Given Calipari's past, you get the feeling that's how he would like to play. That makes it tough for Lee and Johnson, McDonald's All-Americans who might be on the outside looking in. But you can't argue with the results. Hawkins continues to get play in front of the more experienced Jarod Polson, and Calipari says that's likely to continue. "He's a very confident player," Calipari said. "He's not as talented as some of the guys, but I feel very comfortable putting him in the game."
9. Calipari made a bit of a pivot in how he talks about this team. He acknowledged, "We made a step up today," and then for the first time in a few weeks talked about the potential he sees with this group.
"I can't worry about winning and losing right now," he said. "I just have to worry about these guys playing the right way, with intensity, and talking and not stopping and coming up with balls they should.
"They know we could be special if we get this right. I was proud of the way we finished it. We ground it out. We made the plays, ground it out, got fouled, like they've been doing it for two yeas. I was proud of that. We got a chance."