Asked how he expects his Morehead State team to hang with the big dogs, er, Wildcats, former Wildcat and Eagles head coach Sean Woods said his team will throw “everything but the kitchen sink” at Kentucky.
While Woods may have done that with some comments about Kentucky’s players on Monday (more on that later), his team is expected to give UK its toughest defensive test to date.
Taking a page from his playing days when his Kentucky teams pressed, Wood coaches with an up-tempo, full-court defense. The Eagles (3-1) are hoping to turn up the pressure on Kentucky (2-1) and see if their defense can lure the young Cats into inexperienced mistakes.
“We’re going to play our style of play and we’re going to come at you,” Woods said. “If Kentucky is meant to be and they’re playing a good game then they beat us. And if they play young and turn the ball over against our pressure, we’re going to have a chance.”
Asked how ready his team is to face Morehead State’s pressure on Wednesday at 7 p.m., Calipari put it bluntly.
“We’re not,” he said. “We’re not prepared. We don’t scramble, and if the game is allowed to be physical they’ll turn us over a bunch. But it’s what we need. It’s not, ‘How much have we worked on press attack?’ We’re still trying to get them to play hard. So we’re trying to get them to play a full possession.”
What: No. 8/7 UK (2-1) vs. Morehead State (3-1)
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | MSU
Video interviews: Cal, Mays, Wiltjer and Polson
News: Poythress named SEC Freshman of the Week
Video feature: Under the lights
Morehead State File
Head coach: Morehead State (3-1 at Morehead State)
Conference: Ohio Valley
Player to watch: Milton Chavis (17.3 points, 3.3 steals, 50.0 3-point pct.)
Series history: UK leads 9-0
Last meeting: UK won 75-59 in 2009
Morehead State’s pressure has translated into 13 steals and 22 turnovers per game, including 19 steals last weekend against Lafayette. The Eagles are ranked 12th nationally in defensive turnover percentage, according to kenpom.com, and averaging 74.8 possessions per game.
The Cats didn’t work on a press attack for the first time until after the Maryland game, but they’ve given special attention to it the last few days with Morehead State on the schedule. Junior guard Jarrod Polson, who has taken on a surprisingly important role with this year’s team, said they’ve been putting six guys on defense for their press attack to simulate the pressure.
Contrary to popular belief, the key to breaking an up-tempo defense isn’t going faster than the opponent; it’s actually slowing down.
Graduate student Julius Mays said the keys to breaking a press are “staying strong with the ball in traffic, pivot around, just don’t let them speed you and make plays that they want you to make.”
Mays could play an important role in breaking Wednesday’s pressure, as could Polson. Both are expected to see significant ball-handling minutes alongside freshman Archie Goodwin with Ryan Harrow’s status still in doubt.
Harrow, who has been battling flu-like symptoms, returned to the practice court Monday for the first time in more than week, although it was in a conditioning role only. He was expected to participate in Tuesday’s practice, but his status for Wednesday’s game sounded iffy at best because of his absence on the practice court.
“He’s obviously the low man on the totem pole,” Coach Cal said. “You got to start from behind. And that isn’t all bad for him either because he’s going to have to battle for time. He’s behind everybody which means you got to earn it in practice. It’s not all bad.”
Calipari said Harrow is behind and has lost seven pounds to his already rail-thin frame.
“He looks thin,” Calipari said. “That’s why I said I don’t know. I want to see him in a practice setting and start figuring out what we do, what’s the timetable.”
While Harrow’s services would be welcomed Wednesday, Calipari is more concerned with how his entire team handles the pressure.
“We need to be pressed and played physical and let’s see what we’re about, if we’ll be strong with the ball, if we’re going to come to jump stops, if we’ll come back and meet passes, if we’ll make the extra pass,” Calipari said. “We’ll find out. This is all learning.”
Kentucky has taken very good care of the ball this year, averaging just 11.7 turnovers in its first three games, but that could all change once Morehead State speeds up the game.
“We could have 30 turnovers and they beat our brains in,” Calipari said. “It could happen. We’re a young team. We don’t even know how we’re going to respond to stuff.”
Calipari moving on from Woods’ comments
On Monday, Woods, a key member of “the Unforgettables” and a revered figure in UK history, was heavily criticized for commenting about Kentucky’s current players and “a vibe” he got from them at the “Rebounding from Sandy” telethon he didn’t like. The assessment came after Woods was asked what he thought about Willie Cauley-Stein not knowing who Christian Laettner was.
Woods said “they didn’t seem like Kentucky basketball players to me” and explained that they appeared to have a “sense of entitlement.”
Obviously the comments didn’t go over so well in UK land, even from a legend whose jersey hangs in the Rupp Arena rafters.
Woods has been apologetic since, clarifying that he was talking about today’s generation in general and their lack of basketball history. Whatever the case, Woods has since said he shouldn’t have said what he said, issuing several apologies, including a series of tweets on Monday.
“In no way were my comments meant to offend or insult the current players at UK,” Woods said. “Simply an observation of today’s youth everywhere. I greatly admire Coach Cal and what he has done for the University of Kentucky and college basketball. I will always be proud to have worn a Kentucky Wildcat uniform and to be the head coach at Morehead State University.”
Of course, those apologies didn’t stop reporters from asking Calipari to weigh in on the comments Tuesday.
“At the telethon and whatever these guys have done, they were hugging volunteers, so I don’t know where he got that,” Caliapri said. “Maybe someone didn’t know him or something, I don’t know. But I love our kids are about and what they’ve done academically, what they do in the community. Being here is a big deal and it’s hard to deal with all the stuff that goes around.”
Mays, while a veteran, is new to the program, but he hasn’t seen any sense of entitlement with the new, highly rated freshmen.
“My thoughts are they are really humble,” Mays said. “They work for everything they’ve got. They’ve worked to get here. I feel like they still have chips on their shoulders to show the world that they can play. I don’t think there is any cockiness or sense of entitlement. I don’t get that by being around them.”
Calipari said he and his team have already moved on from the comments.
“Knowing Sean, I figured he misspoke,” Coach Cal said. “I chalk it up to that and I move on. I’m not taking it personal.”