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Kentucky shows up for the fight at Arkansas

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Ulis, Kentucky bounce back (1:04)

Kentucky bounces back from a loss to Auburn with Tyler Ulis scoring 24 points in an 80-66 win over Arkansas. (1:04)

On June 27, 1988, Mike Tyson KO’d Michael Spinks before their heavyweight title fight began that night in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It all started with the faceoff in the middle of the ring. Spinks, who wouldn’t look at Tyson, didn’t want any part of that moment. And Tyson could feel it.

Just 91 seconds into the fight, Tyson’s uppercut ended the bout.

Most years in the John Calipari era, Kentucky enjoys the type of mystique Tyson rode through most of his career. The Wildcats walk into the opposing team’s gym and the pregame “We’re gonna slay Goliath tonight, boys!” mantra suddenly wobbles as UK’s athletes twirl and soar in remixed layup lines that challenge gravity.

Throughout the 2015-16 season, however, the Wildcats have resembled Spinks too often. Not intimidating. Not imposing. Not awesome. Not tough. Not confident.

But in Thursday night’s 80-66 road victory over Arkansas, Kentucky played like a team that finally understood the stakes and recognized that no team -- not in the SEC or beyond -- will kneel and hand them a victory just because they’re the Kentucky Wildcats.

They gotta take it. Snatch it, really.

And perhaps that’s why Calipari slipped Derek Willis (12 points, seven rebounds, four blocks) into the starting lineup against Arkansas. His talent will never match his grit, but Kentucky needed the latter.

Maybe Calipari said something to Skal Labissiere (11 points), as well. His first and only season of college basketball is not what we all anticipated after the No. 2 prospect in the freshman class picked Kentucky.

But there Labissiere was Thursday in Fayetteville, Arkansas, throwing his cornstalk frame around the paint. Bumping defenders. Challenging shots (three blocks). Flushing a dunk in the second half, which yielded a scream that sounded like in-game therapy: I know I can do this!

Marcus Lee fought for loose balls and rebounds off the bench. Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis finished 3-for-20 combined in the first half. Not pretty, and proof the offensive quandary that has choked this team’s ambitions remains.

Overall, that trio finished 12-for-35.

Still, Kentucky demonstrated a few signs that there’s an SEC contender -- and maybe more -- buried somewhere in its locker room.

The praise of a squad that just lost to Auburn must be tempered, though. The Wildcats beat Arkansas. But it's not as if Corliss Williamson, soul of the 1994 NCAA champs, played. And Arkansas lost to Akron and Mercer too. Remember that.

We’ll know more about Kentucky on Saturday, when it faces a Vanderbilt squad with big bodies and a lottery pick on the perimeter in Wade Baldwin IV. And then, a week from Saturday, Kentucky will travel to Lawrence for a matchup at Kansas.

So let’s hold off on the “They’ve been healed!” pronouncements after a solid, double-digit victory at Arkansas. Let’s slow down on the “Derek Willis is the answer to every problem!” proclamations.

Thursday night’s win was a step for Kentucky. But do you see the staircase that leads to March Madness?

The attribute most evident in Thursday’s effort isn’t a metric you’ll see on KenPom.com.

For the first time in weeks, Kentucky didn’t look soft.

That’s the element of basketball that is introduced long before most learn how to execute a motion offense or a 2-3 zone.

Toughness comes when your older brother hammers you on your way to the rim and dares you to call a foul. Toughness is how you respond when the kid from the rival high school talks trash and questions your ability. It is the component that is difficult to capture but easy to notice when it’s lacking.

And this Kentucky outfit has lacked the machismo most Wildcats squads employed as they competed for national championships under Calipari.

No, the Wildcats don’t have last season’s talent. But let’s state the obvious here: We might not see that amount of talent on one roster for a long time. That squad’s temperament also mattered, though.

Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison were jerks to opponents. They didn’t like you and they didn’t care how you felt about them. Willie Cauley-Stein was cool and mellow in front of a microphone. But he wanted to swat every shot you thought about taking. Karl-Anthony Towns had an imaginary friend named “Karlito,” who ripped him after bad games. Devin Booker would hit a 3-pointer in your face and then jog up the floor with that arrogant smirk.

If you challenged Kentucky to a fight last season, the whole roster would wait for you in the parking lot. This year? Ulis would be there -- he once exchanged words with DeMarcus Cousins during a pickup game. Maybe Willis too. The rest? Questionable.

And it has been that lack of fire and fury that has turned this team of nationally ranked recruits and NBA prospects into the nicest group of Wildcats we’ve seen since the 2012-13 NIT season. They don’t want to beat opponents by 20, it seems. They want to add them on Snapchat and take selfies with them.

On Thursday, however, a squad with a different swagger took the floor. One that fought like an SEC contender should. A team that seemed embarrassed by that loss at Auburn.

A squad that wanted to KO the Razorbacks.

And maybe, a Kentucky team that recognizes it can’t just walk into a gym and scare folks this season. The Wildcats must come to fight.