basketball Edit

Calipari: Cats have to run, crash boards against Tar Heels

Kentucky coach John Calipari worked with freshman forward Isaiah Jackson during the Georgia Tech game.
Kentucky coach John Calipari worked with freshman forward Isaiah Jackson during the Georgia Tech game. (Brett Davis/USA Today)

After Covid-19 testing concerns prompted a late switch of opponents for Saturday's CBS Sports Classic in Cleveland, Kentucky is scrambling to get its struggling young team ready to face a different kind of challenge.

"We're all in the same boat," UK coach John Calipari said of the revised schedule, which sees the Wildcats face No. 22 North Carolina instead of its original matchup with UCLA. "Either game was going to be hard. I mean, UCLA is a terrific team. They play tough, and so is North Carolina. Both of them are Top-20 teams. Either one, it didn’t matter, it was going to be a hard game.”

North Carolina (4-2) presents some unique challenges for a completely rebuilt Kentucky squad that has opened a season 1-4 for the first time since 1984-85.

The Tar Heels rank eighth nationally in rebounding margin at plus-15 per game. They lost 93-80 to No. 3 Iowa but still managed to outrebound the Hawkeyes 47-38. They were also defeated by No. 17 Texas 69-67 despite holding an eye-popping 50-32 advantage on the glass.

"This next game, now with Carolina, they’re outrebounding their opponents by 18 rebounds a game and they’ve played a good schedule (vs.) Texas and Stanford and Iowa and UNLV," Calipari said. "The teams that they’ve played, they’re outrebounding them by 18, and it’s literally, you know, you’re going to have to fight. You’re going to have to go body-to-body. Guards are going to have to stick their nose in. Our guards are going to have to get 10, 15 rebounds."

Despite its impressive size and length, Kentucky is only outrebounding opponents by plus-6 on average this season. The Cats are coming off a 68-67 loss to Notre Dame in which the significantly smaller Fighting Irish held a 34-30 edge on the glass.

Another area that has Calipari concerned is tempo. Like all Roy Williams-coached teams, the Tar Heels are playing at their familiar breakneck pace, something that could challenge a team as young as the Cats.

"Carolina kind of plays that, whether you make it or miss, they’re flying it up your back," the UK boss said. "So you kind of have to get used to some of that kind of stuff. It’s hard on a quick turn, but it’s hard for all of us.”

Kentucky will turn once again to freshman wing Terrence Clarke (13.8 ppg) to handle the "lead guard" duties after he impressed the staff with his play against Notre Dame. But he knows Williams will have a plan to test his young star, who has dished out 13 assists and turned the ball over 17 times on the season.

"This is one of those games where they’re hard showing on pick-and-rolls, they’ll trap you some, they’ll deny, they’ll make it hard to catch," Calipari said. "Are you fighting to get open as hard as they are fighting to catch you to get you from catching it? But that’s where this thing is kind of flowing."

Said Calipari: "The thing that they hopefully understand is that you’re trying to play efficient offensively. You can’t have 25 turnovers and win a college basketball game.

"We’ve just got to get them accepting the roles they have, getting them to focus on game planning. I mean, we’re just sloppy, execution-sloppy."

The Cats and Heels will tip off at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the home of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. The game will be broadcast by CBS.