LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Time is running out on trying to figure out a way to beat Kentucky this season. And after Saturday’s 84-67 win over No. 18 Arkansas, it’s probably time to scratch out one potential formula: taming the Wildcats via track meet.
The Razorbacks stuck to their style of pressing and running at Rupp Arena but only ended up experiencing their own personal 40 Minutes of Hell. Kentucky gladly accepted the challenge of going fast and furiously worked over its 29th straight victim.
“We go 10 guys deep, so if teams want to run with us they’re going to get tired a lot faster than we are,” forward Trey Lyles said. “That’s what we do best, is run up and down the court and get transition points.”
For the most part, the teams that have made the Wildcats sweat this season are the ones that have gummed up things in the half court. Slow the pace down, keep Kentucky in the 50s or 60s, like Columbia and Louisville and Vanderbilt did, and there’s at least a chance of being close in the end. You’re probably not going to score many points on the Wildcats' historically stifling defense anyway, and if you open the throttle, as Arkansas did, you’re likely to get throttled. That’s why more deliberate teams like Virginia and Wisconsin might pose the biggest challenges for Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.
Fast breaks are simply fool's gold against this team. That was made clear early on when Alandise Harris thought he had a dunk in transition. Before he knew it, Willie Cauley-Stein had rejected his attempt so sternly that Harris fell down and lost the ball out of bounds. Cauley-Stein then stared at Harris’ prone body as if to say, “What the heck were you thinking?”
“It’s hard to beat us off the dribble,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And if you do, you’re running into 7-footers.”
Waves of them, in fact. Even with center Karl-Anthony Towns picking up two fouls before the first media timeout and his backup, Dakari Johnson, having one of his worst games, the home team never suffered. It simply leaned harder on the skills of Lyles and Cauley-Stein.
Lyles scored a career-high 18 points for the second straight game. Calipari calls the 6-foot-10 freshman this team’s X factor, as if it needs one. After recovering from a bout of strep throat that kept him out of three games a few weeks ago, Lyles is now finding his stride. Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, proved why he belongs in the national player of the year discussion even when he scores only seven points. He had nine rebounds, four blocks, two steals and a pair of assists.
“I felt like every time we started putting pressure on a player, somebody else picked it up,” Arkansas guard Michael Qualls said. “That’s what a true team does.”
The Razorbacks had hoped to speed up Kentucky and force mistakes, but things went the other way. The Wildcats committed only nine turnovers against the full-court pressure, seven fewer than the Razorbacks force on average. Arkansas, meanwhile, turned it over 12 times.
“With our size and quickness, it’s hard to press us,” 6-6 point guard Andrew Harrison said. “You can see over the top or get around and just make the right pass.”
The up-tempo style actually fed right into the February renaissance of Harrison, who finished with 18 points. Calipari urged him at the beginning of the month to be ultra-aggressive and get into the lane, and on Saturday he controlled the offense while getting to the free throw line eight times. He finished the month averaging 11.9 points per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 3-to-1.
“It’s a spirit we all feel when we watch him play,” Calipari said. “He doesn’t stop on the court. ‘I’m in attack mode. I’m aggressive. I’m talking to my teammates. I’m running this.’”
Arkansas was the first ranked team Kentucky has played since a Dec. 27 win at Louisville. If any nitpick existed about this special season so far, it was a lack of marquee opponents in SEC play.
The Wildcats rebuked that critique Saturday, leading by as many as 31 points in the second half and never letting the Razorbacks get closer than 13 after halftime. They have now beaten the six ranked opponents on their schedule by an average of 17.2 points.
“I feel like when people hype up the game, we get a little more excited to play, a little more anxious,” backup point guard Tyler Ulis said. “And then we come out and just handle business.”
That’s especially true when the games are fast-paced. The past two teams that have come to Lexington have either wanted to push the pace (Arkansas) or have been unable to stop it from happening (Auburn). Kentucky has scored 194 points in those two games.
Two more hurdles -- at Georgia on Tuesday and home versus Florida on Saturday -- stand in the way of the first perfect regular season by a power conference team since Indiana in 1976. Maybe somebody will figure out a way to keep these Wildcats from running the table. But running right alongside them is not advisable.