basketball Edit

With Kansas showdown looming, defense a key for young Wildcats

Kentucky freshman guard Quade Green tried to fight his way around a pick by Utah Valley in the Wildcats' opening game of the season.
Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated

Deadpan comedian Steven Wright once mused "What's another word for thesaurus?"

It was a good time to pack one Monday as Kentucky coach John Calipari challenged reporters at his press conference to come up with a term worthy of the Wildcats' defense through the first two games of the season.

"Guard defense is really... What's a word above bad?" the UK boss asked.

"Terrible?" suggested a member of the school's sports information staff.

Calipari: "Above that."

"Atrocious" came next.

"Yeah, like atrocious," Calipari said. "Are there other words that you can use? Keep going."

Kentucky (2-0) survived its first two games of the season against Utah Valley and Vermont despite playing defense uncharacteristic of teams coached by Calipari.

Opponents typically shoot under 40 percent against his teams. After two games, that figure is 43 percent.

On Sunday afternoon at Rupp Arena, the Wildcats slipped past Vermont 73-69 despite allowing the Catamounts to shoot 59 percent in the second half.

"We're just getting beat on the dribble by everybody," Calipari said. "... Defense starts on the ball. It always has."

That's a major concern as No. 7 Kentucky heads to Chicago on Tuesday for its third game in five days, a marquee matchup with No. 4 Kansas (1-0) in the Champions Classic.

While the Cats feature one of the youngest lineups in college basketball -- they have started five freshmen in each of the first two games -- the Jayhawks have an experienced backcourt of playmakers.

Kansas cruised to a 92-56 win over Tennessee State in its season opener, getting 23 points from junior guard Lagerald Vick, 15 points from senior guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and a near triple-double from senior guard Devonte Graham, who tallied 10 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds.

The Jayhawks were 12-for-28 from the 3-point arc. Calipari predicted they would attempt "25-30" on Tuesday against UK. But it's the layups that have frustrated him more than anything.

"We have to be able to stay in front of people," Calipari said. "We have enough shot blocking unless they’re shooting straight layups. Ain’t no one blocking that. If you make them go wide of you, we can help. But to go straight down the line...

"It's not just the guards. Kevin Knox is getting beat that way. PJ (Washington) is getting beat that way. Freshmen get beat that way. Hami (Diallo) gets beat that way. That’s what freshmen do... And now we've just got to demand it."

What have the Cats heard repeatedly since the end of Sunday's nail-biter? "You can’t give them layups or wide-open 3s. Those two things kill your team," Calipari said.

There have been some positives through the first two games. Kentucky's latest impressive recruiting class has displayed a willingness to learn and be coached.

"I'm pleased they're a really smart team," Calipari said. "They're trying to grasp what we're doing. And I like that."

Calipari said he's more focused on his own squad than scouting Kansas, but what little he has seen of the Jayhawks has impressed him.

"Kansas is flying," he said. "... If our guards can't stay in front of them, we'll get beat by 30 up there."