LOUISVILLE — Kentucky's mantra this season has been selfless sacrifice. So it made sense when Hampton Coach Edward Joyner Jr. suggested that the way to beat Kentucky — or at least compete with Kentucky — could be summed up as divide and conquer.
"Make them individual defenders," he said after UK beat Hampton 79-56 Thursday in the NCAA Tournament. "When they team-defend, that's one of the best defensive teams that you'll ever see."
In theory, quickness can neutralize Kentucky's size. Or as Cincinnati forward Octavius Ellis said of the Cats on Friday, "They've got a lot of size. So we've just got to use that to our advantage."
Spread the floor. Make UK defend one-on-one. To make it work, have centers and forwards whose good perimeter shooting forces UK's big men to defend away from the basket.
Coach Mick Cronin, who won't be on the sideline because of doctor's orders, declined to say if Cincinnati would try to do just that against Kentucky on Saturday. But he didn't say the Bearcats wouldn't.
"Obviously, I'm not going to discuss it," Cronin said of UC's game planning, of which he said he's "extremely" involved. "I think (John Calipari) would tell you, people have tried everything under the sun against them. So we're not going to do anything they haven't seen."
More than a few UK opponents have talked about spreading the floor and attacking individual defenders. So no surprise that Devin Booker shrugged.
"Everybody has their little plans before the game," he said. "We see it and adjust."
Joyner conceded that Hampton did not have the personnel to make it work. But he suggested other UK opponents, especially in the next week or two (assuming a victory over Cincinnati), might.
"They don't have a recognizable weakness for us (to exploit)," he said. "I know when they have to play the likes of some of the top five (or) 10 teams in the country, there's some things that they can attack in a different way than we probably could."
Coincidentally, Calipari spoke after Thursday's game about the importance of following the "script." By which he appeared to mean not straying from the team-first/individual-last approach.
"Don't get away from what we've been doing that's been working so well," Karl-Anthony Towns said.
"Don't try to invent something," Booker said.
First and foremost for a team that considers defense its foundation, that means a collective effort to not only contain, but to quote Willie Cauley-Stein, "demoralize" opposing offenses.
"What's really got us here is a group defensive effort," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, acknowledged the difficulty of defending a perimeter shooter and getting in position to protect the rim as a shot blocker.
"In games I have to guard a (perimeter) shooter, I'm not probably going to block a lot of shots," he said. "I don't look to block a lot of shots unless I'm down there."
Kentucky's 35-0 record speaks to how well opponents' "little" plans have worked.
As Cronin suggested, Kentucky's overwhelming depth and size mandates not only a good plan, but extraordinary execution.
"Everything you teach as a coach, if you don't do it in this game, you're going to lose," he said. "So if you don't make the right pass to an open man, you're not going to be able to overcome mistakes in this game. What happens when you play a team with tremendous talent, your margin for error shrinks.
"So everything you teach and preach all year, your guys must accomplish and be 100 percent committed to."
Oh, and that 100 percent commitment must be maintained.
"Can you do it for 40 minutes because a lot of teams have done it," Cronin said of fashioning a good game plan. "But they haven't been able to get over the hump. ...
"And that's the difference. The culmination effect of their size, bench and athleticism has worn on people."