The much-ballyhooed platoon system went by the wayside. Kentucky's streak of consecutive games making a three-point shot nearly did, too.
On Sunday afternoon, UK Coach John Calipari got the kind of "hand-to-hand" game he said he wanted. No time for bombing away from three or UK's substitution contrivance with Providence setting the tone, showing no fear and bringing a sense of unease where none previously existed.
Ultimately, Kentucky's versatility, especially on defense, buried Providence, 58-38.
The Cats won the hard way, or at least a much harder way than previously on display this season. Going into the game, Kentucky averaged a victory margin of 36.8 points.
"Kentucky had to show up today, baby!" said Providence Coach Ed Cooley. who seemed willing to grasp whatever success was within reach.
Such a "victory" seemed telling. So, too, that the Friars took pride in making Kentucky abandon its platoon system for substitutions. Instead of five replacing five every four minutes or so, Calipari actually had to make substitutions for strategic reasons rather than be fair and give each of his five-man units its predetermined turn on stage. For instance, Calipari repeatedly substituted Tyler Ulis for Andrew Harrison and vice versa down the stretch of the first half. Harrison, who had two fouls, played offense. Ulis played defense.
"One of our goals going into the game was to disrupt their system, and we did," Providence's 7-foot center, Carson Desrosiers, said. "They were subbing one or two guys at a time trying to find a thing that would work. That was a little positive takeaway from the game."
Willie Cauley-Stein, whose defense helped limit LaDontae Henton to one-for-eight shooting and three points (less than an eighth of his average of 24.3 ppg), looked mystified when asked about success or failure being associated with Kentucky decommissioning its platoons.
"It's kind of odd that you take that as a defeat or a victory," he said. "You still have five guys on the court who can play."
Kentucky, which had faced a deficit for less than 16 minutes all season, trailed for a majority of the first half. With Providence setting a slower pace, the Cats trailed from the 13:24 mark until only 3:11 remained in the first half.
Of Providence's intent to slow the pace offensively and sag into the lane on defense, Desrosiers said, "In the first half, I think we played it to a 'T' following the scouting report and the game plan.
"They turned their pressure up a little bit, and it got to us."
Ulis and Cauley-Stein lit the fuse. Cauley-Stein's up-and-under layup put the Cats ahead for good at 21-20 with 3:11 left in the first half.
Ulis injected life in the Rupp Arena Cat-mosphere with his signature dogged defense. His floater in the lane also drew a cheer.
But Ulis forced a five-second call, forced another turnover and — surprisingly for a player listed at 5-foot-9 — blocked a three-point shot.
"I thought the biggest key today was Ulis," Cooley said. "I thought he was very disruptive with his ball pressure. You couldn't get into an offensive flow."
Calipari lamented how Providence, which lost for the first time, controlled much of the first half.
"To start the game, they were in a rhythm," he said. "They came down. Threw it to the wing. They threw it to the elbow. He dribbled around. He went off a pick and roll."
"He's so small and so active, it's hard to get away from him," teammate Alex Poythress said of Ulis.
Echoing the sentiment, Cauley-Stein referred to Ulis as "just an annoyance."
When asked if he must deal with Ulis in practice, Poythress smiled and said, "He doesn't guard me at all. So I'm excused from that."
Like a hard-to-detect virus infecting a computer system, Ulis helped reduce Providence to repeated attempts to reboot.
The same Providence team that made seven of its first 10 shots got only four of its final 29 to go through the hoop. A 26-22 UK halftime lead expanded steadily.
Perhaps, only stat devotees noticed that Kentucky hadn't made a three-point basket through the first 30 minutes. Finally, Devin Booker swished one with 8:40 left. That shot, which extended UK's streak of making at least one three-pointer to 907 games (second-longest in the nation), also put UK ahead 42-29. Until Sunday, the Cats had averaged 41.3 points in first halves.
Explaining why he welcomed this sterner test (with more likely to come, as soon as Friday against No. 7 Texas), Calipari said, "We've got to see where we are when the game's tight. Who can make shots? Who is making plays?"