LEXINGTON, Ky. -- After Kentucky beat Arkansas 84-67 at Rupp Arena on Saturday, wiping the floor with the last ranked team the Wildcats will see until … possibly Arkansas again, in the SEC tournament, coach John Calipari made an admission: He'd already started wishing the regular season was over 10 days ago. His season began earlier than normal, with an exhibition tour of the Bahamas in August, and it's likely to go all the way until the first Monday in April; can you fault him for just wanting to get on with the business of national-title chasing already?
Calipari's team is 29-0 and has destroyed its six ranked opponents by an average margin of 17.2 points. He has defended the maligned SEC ad nauseam. "This league is not what [pundits] want to paint it to be," he said again on Saturday.
But it's clear that Kentucky wants consistently bigger games. It took the number beside Arkansas' name to bring out the best version of the Wildcats we've seen since December's rout of UCLA.
"This proves we're always up for a challenge, and I think that's a good thing, that the better team you play, the better you play," said Andrew Harrison.
And there's little else anyone in their league can do to challenge them. Bring on Virginia. Bring on Duke, or Gonzaga, or Wisconsin or Arizona. Just hit fast-forward already, and let us find out if Kentucky is good enough to make history as the first unbeaten team since Indiana in 1975-76.
The way the Wildcats decided to play Arkansas was telling. It was the way a team approaches a game when it's completely confident in its superiority over an opponent. Kentucky came into Saturday averaging 63.6 possessions per game, while the Razorbacks, one of the last true uptempo teams in a downtempo era, averaged 70.7 possessions. To play fast against Arkansas, for most teams, is to play right into the Razorbacks' hands. Yet Calipari wanted to play even faster, telling his players, "We want to score 100."
He wanted the Wildcats to go on the attack, figuring the more possessions they played, the more likely their advantages in talent and efficiency would matter.
Thus against the team that nicknames itself The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball, Kentucky won the tip and scored in eight seconds, on a designed play for an alley-oop from Karl-Anthony Towns to Trey Lyles. When the Wildcats got the ball back on a defensive rebound, they scored in … eight seconds, on a Towns putback of an Aaron Harrison drive. It took them a whole 10 seconds to score on their fourth possession, nine seconds on their fifth, and 12 seconds on their sixth. They went up 11-2 by seeing Arkansas' speed game and raising it, happily playing at an above-70-possesion pace.
"They came out and kind of punched us," Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson said.
To mention only the buckets, though, would be to ignore the heaviest punch of all—one emblematic of the might of Kentucky's defense, which held Arkansas to 26 points (and just 0.722 PPP) in the first half. This came directly after the Wildcats' fourth possession, when Arkansas got out on the break, with guard Michael Qualls slashing to the free-throw line, pulling up, and passing to a wide-open Alandise Harris near the right block for what looked like a wide-open dunk. At the time Qualls was making the pass, Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein was directly behind him, his feet touching the top of the key:
But by the time Harris was airborne, Cauley-Stein was devouring him. Four choppy steps and a perfectly timed leap in a half-second, and Cauley-Stein had closed the gap from key to rim and pinned Harris' dunk attempt against the bottom-right side of the backboard so violently that Harris fell to the ground, knocking the ball out bounds in the process.
After which Cauley-Stein stood over Harris, looking down at him with an expression of complete and utter disgust: You really thought any of this would work against us?
That look will make the highlight tape if Kentucky goes down as the best defensive team of college basketball's three-point era, and it defined the afternoon in Lexington. Arkansas' hope of flustering Kentucky's backcourt into turnovers, which worked against the Harrison twins in both meetings last season, both of which were Razorback wins? Please.
Kentucky committed just nine turnovers in the game, and its turnover rate of 12.9 percent was the second-lowest by an Arkansas opponent this season. Sophomore point guard Andrew Harrison played with the aggressive, attacking spirit that Calipari constantly tries to coax out of him, scoring 18 points and giving the ball away just twice, along with freshman point guard Tyler Ulis who committed zero turnovers in 22 minutes off the bench.
The Razorbacks' hope of keeping in check Kentucky X-factor Trey Lyles, who scored 18 points at Mississippi State on Wednesday, and is emerging as a real weapon now that he's over a midseason illness? Please. Lyles had another 18, on 8-of-10 shooting, and helped guard Arkansas star Bobby Portis, who finished with just 15 points.
Calipari called Lyles the player who "makes us go from pretty good, or really good, to uh-oh level.
And the notion that Kentucky might be vulnerable once Towns, its best NBA prospect and potentially the first pick in the 2015 draft, picked up his second foul just three minutes and 19 seconds into the game? Laughable.
The Wildcats were up 16 at half despite Towns riding pine. They led by 31 at the 8:01 mark of the second half, and were so comfortably in charge during a media timeout with 3:58 left that New York Knicks president Phil Jackson, who was scouting the game from a baseline seat, got up and left the building.
Only a few late defensive lapses brought the final margin to 84-67 and caused Andrew Harrison to insist afterwards, "We didn't even play our best. We can get better."
The scary thing is, the Wildcats can still get better. The annoying thing is, we might have to wait four weeks, perhaps until they face a worthy opponent in a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight, for someone to bring it out of them.
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