CBKB: Kentucky poised for No. 1 with 101-70 rout of Hogs
Associated Press Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Less than three months into his first season coaching the nation's all-time winningest program, John Calipari is poised to make good on his pledge to return Kentucky basketball to "its rightful place at the top of the mountain."
Any old win Saturday likely would have restored No. 2 Kentucky to the top of The Associated Press poll for the first time since 2003. However, the Wildcats got a dominating one, cruising 101-70 past Arkansas and former UK alumnus John Pelphrey.
"They just hit a buzz saw today," Calipari said. "I think we would have smashed anyone in the country today. That's not arrogance, but that's as good as we've played for the first 20 minutes. We would have beaten a lot of teams today."
By keeping alive the nation's only unblemished record, the Wildcats (19-0, 4-0 SEC) are almost certain to be No. 1 in the polls on Monday. Top-ranked Texas has lost consecutive games, falling to Kansas State and Connecticut.
"They have a chance to be the best team in college basketball this year," said Pelphrey, who has now lost all three meetings against his alma mater as an opposing coach.
Calipari and the Wildcats acknowledged the goal isn't to be No. 1 in late January, but rather, late March and beyond.
"It's not a big deal to be No. 1 if you don't finish the season No. 1," said Darius Miller, who led the Wildcats with a career-high 18 points. "I think everybody dreams about playing for a No. 1 team. I think that motivated us today."
This one was practically over by tipoff. Kentucky scored the game's first 10 points, stretched the lead to 30 by halftime, then added the first 14 points of the second half.
With that much margin for error, the Wildcats easily avoided the kind of second-half letdown that made recent wins over Georgia and Auburn much closer than anticipated.
"To be No. 1 and undefeated is great, but we want to stay humble and hungry," said freshman John Wall, who had 16 points and a game-high seven assists. "It seems like we get a 16- or 17-point lead and let up. Today we said, 'Don't let up.'"
Arkansas (8-11, 1-3) did make an 18-3 run midway through the second half, but by that time, Kentucky had plenty of cushion to withstand it.
The Wildcats' largest lead was 46 after Wall hit a jumper with 14 minutes left. The Razorbacks got it no closer than 92-62 with under 4 minutes to go.
Courtney Fortson scored 21 points to lead Arkansas, but it wasn't nearly enough to keep up with the Wildcats' scoring barrage.
"Coach tells us to never give up and keep playing hard" Fortson said. "We just kept on encouraging each other to keep playing hard and try to get through it the best we could."
The Wildcats ended the first half and began the second on a 21-0 run, including a 3-pointer by Ramon Harris at the halftime buzzer and later consecutive 3s by Miller.
Miller connected on four of six attempts from long range.
Among the many stars for Kentucky was DeMarcus Cousins, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, securing his 10th double-double just seconds into the second half. He probably would have gotten it even sooner but was sidelined for all but nine minutes of the first half with two chipped teeth. He was taken to UK Medical Center following the game for evaluation.
Every bounce seemed to go Kentucky's way — even on the broken plays. Late in the first half, Patrick Patterson missed badly on a reverse dunk attempt, but Wall was right there to dish in the follow.
For the most part, the Wildcats relied on athleticism — not luck — to overpower the Razorbacks. It was Kentucky's third 100-point effort of the season and first in SEC play.
"Everybody's been trying to beat us already," freshman guard Eric Bledsoe said. "I think teams are going to try even harder now."
Just 18 seconds in, Patterson hit a baseline jumper. Cousins added a layup in traffic, followed by a Wall's three-point play and the first 3-pointer of the game by Miller.
By the time Mike Washington ended the Kentucky run with a three-point play, Arkansas' lone basket in 11 shots, the Wildcats' lead was 10.
Calipari tried to keep expectations low going into the game, joking, "What's going to happen the next day, we go to the electric chair?"
One thing that did concern him was the Wildcats have been vulnerable against 3-point shooters this year, and Arkansas has one of the nation's best in Rotnei Clarke. However, Clarke was just 2 of 9 from beyond the arc and the Razorbacks managed just one other 3.
The win gave Calipari a 65th consecutive victory against conference foes, including conference tournament games, breaking the previous NCAA record set by former UK coach Adolph Rupp from 1945-50.
Most of those victories were when Calipari coached Memphis, which last week saw its streak of 64 such wins fall against UTEP.
But the postseason talk from him was all about the team and its next step.
"I try to tell them, those seven national titles are not a burden," he said. "They're a badge of honor. No. 1 in the country is not a burden. It's an honor. For us, we'll see how we respond now."