LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats rebounded from a poor effort Friday against Baylor with a dramatically improved performance Tuesday, beating a previously undefeated Boise State team 70-55 at Rupp Arena.
The 11th-ranked Wildcats improved to 8-2 while Boise’s Broncos fell to 8-1.
Kentucky held a significant size advantage over the Broncos, and played with the effort to take advantage. The Wildcats outrebounded the Broncos 43-27 and used both size and athleticism to keep a potent Boise offense in check.
The Broncos came into this game the second-leading scoring team in the nation, averaging some 91 points each time out, but they were largely bottled up in this one.
Boise State shot just 22 of 69 from the field, for 31.9 percent, while Kentucky hit 27 of 51 for 52.9 percent.
The first question asked of Boise State coach Leon Rice after the game was about Kentucky’s size. Rice responded with a wry smile, then laughed and said: “Some of the things they do, it’s like me with my 10-year-old son in the driveway ... we can do all of the right things and try to battle, but they are just so physically imposing. I thought they were really, really dialed in, and I knew they would be.”
Rice expected Kentucky’s best shot with the Wildcats coming off the disappointing 67-62 weekend loss to Baylor in Dallas.
“I have never underestimated (coach John) Calipari,” Rice said. “He is one of the best out there, and they are going to continue to get better. I’ve seen it. They’re coming. The loss to Baylor sometimes re-calibrates, maybe opens up their minds to listen a little bit more. The more they trust him, the better they are going to continue to get.”
The smaller Broncos — Boise starts four guards — tried to sag inside early, and Kentucky freshman forward James Young made the Broncos pay. Young hit several perimeter jumpers early on his way to a game-high 21 points. Young also added nine rebounds.
“I was just really feeling it tonight,” Young said.
When Boise paid more attention to Young, UK sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman forward Julius Randle went to work.
Cauley-Stein, playing his first game as a blonde, responded with nine blocked shots to go with six points and seven rebounds, and Randle finished with 17 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Cauley-Stein came to the game sporting a new, blonde hair color. Calipari was unfazed.
“There’s two things I’m not: I’m not the tattoo police, and I’m not the hair police,” Calipari said. “I don’t care how you look. But I’ll say this, looking like that, you better play, Willie.”
Calipari’s thoughts then drifted back to his brief stint coaching the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. He pointed to another guy with unconventional tastes in hair: Dennis Rodman.
“There was a guy who used to do that to his hair, and he also wore wedding dresses,” Calipari said, referring to his days coaching against Rodman. “But he killed you. He would shut you out, get every rebound and play 40 minutes. Then I’d see him on the treadmill after the game, in our building. You can paint your hair all you want ... just be like him.”
Calipari said Cauley-Stein had the kind of effort Tuesday that he’s looking for.
“It was incredible what he did,” Calipari said of his big man. “He was able to switch out on guards and play them. They couldn’t score on him. That’s a problem.”
Rice said his team could not prepare for Cauley-Stein’s 7-foot size or athleticism.
“It was funny, I was talking to a coach who played them, and he said, ‘You need to simulate playing against a 7-1 guy who can move and block shots, and I’m not sure how to do that,”’ Rice said. “
You just can’t simulate their size in practice. They can make mistakes and then make up for them, and they did a great job of that tonight. With Cauley-Stein, you get to the rim, and he blocks nine of them and alters probably 10 more of them. We have been able to get to the rim in pre-season, but not on him.”
“Give credit to Kentucky,” said Boise State junior forward Anthony Drmic, who led his team with 18 points. “We played small ball, and they took advantage of that. They dominated us on the boards. When you have Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein switching, they can still defend the guards.”
Calipari was asked if Cauley-Stein is coming into his own, and he said his big man’s last hurdle is being able to play against the more physical teams, like Baylor.
“The last game was very physical, and he (Cauley-Stein) didn’t perform,” Calipari said. “So that’s his last challenge ... his last test. When it gets physical, will he get lower and play that kind of game? Because when he gets that, it’s on.”
“I know what I have to do now,” Cauley-Stein said. “Last year I was in between what I was trying to do, and this year I am just running around and blocking every shot I can.”
The lone blemish on Kentucky’s resume against Boise State was turnovers. The Wildcats turned the ball over 19 times, and at least half of those were unforced.
“We turned the ball over way too much — just cross court passes, give it up earlier, holding on to the ball with three guys on you, bad post feeds for no reason...” Calipari said. “And they were playing a sagging man to man. It wasn’t like they were out trapping us and going nuts.”
But, Calipari did not sound alarmed. Progress was made on this night, in a game that Kentucky never trailed.
It’s a good sign going into Saturday’s test at North Carolina (5:15 p.m. on ESPN).
“All the stuff we’ve been working on, we did better today,” Calipari said. “It’s that we’ve got so many areas we’ve got to continue to work on. We’ve got time.”
Count Boise’s Rice as a fan.
“They have a tremendous upside, and they are going to continue to grow and get better,” Rice said. “I look forward to watching them as the season goes on because this is a team that — as they keep dialing into what Coach Cal’s giving them — the sky’s the limit for them.”
Kentucky’s next home game is Dec. 21, with a noon start against Belmont.
For a photo gallery of the game, visit our SmugMug gallery.