One can analyze and dissect all the reasons why this Kentucky team is different and isn’t succeeding as much as John Calipari’s previous three teams at UK.
All of them were young, but none of them – with all but Kyle Wiltjer essentially gone from last year’s national championship team – were quite this inexperienced.
“No one here to mimic,” Calipari said Monday. “There’s no one here to imitate.”
There’s certainly no one who has shown they have shut the opposition down on the defensive floor.
As big of a problem as youth is with this 10-5 Kentucky team, perhaps UK’s second-biggest problem this year has been that lack of a shutdown defensive stopper, someone who, as Coach Cal said Monday, “just says, ‘Let me guard him. … Let’s stop this, that’s enough.’ ”
In Calipari’s first year at Kentucky, Coach Cal used the three-headed monster of John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Liggins. The following year it was undoubtedly Liggins. And then last year, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist embraced the role enthusiastically and emphatically.
This year, no one has emerged – at least not yet.
(Note: Nerlens Noel has lived up to his high school defensive accolades, blocking 3.7 shots per game, but Calipari is referring to a perimeter, on-ball defender.)
What: UK (10-5, 1-1 SEC) vs. Tennessee (8-6, 0-2 SEC)
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Tennessee
SEC teleconference: Cal wants Cats to buy in
Video: Cal, Cauley-Stein preview Tennessee
Head coach: Cuonzo Martin (27-21 at Tennessee)
Player to watch: Jarnell Stokes (11.2 points, 7.7 rebounds)
Series history: UK leads 148-66
Last meeting: UK won 69-44 Jan. 31, 2012
If you’re looking for a reason as to why no one has assumed that role yet, Calipari said look to youth.
“It’s hard,” Coach Cal said. “(They’re used to) shooting all the balls, going at your own pace. I’m tired so I’m not going to go hard. There’s no sub for me. It’s a process.”
Kidd-Gilchrist played with a defense-first mentality last year. He stepped on to campus wanting to fill the shoes of Liggins and worried about everything else later. As far as freshmen are concerned, he was the exception to the rule.
While Liggins will forever be remembered for his suffocating defense, he wasn’t great at shutting people down early in his career, especially when Calipari first arrived on the scene. It took him time to adjust to what Calipari wanted from him.
“He bought in that he was going to be a stopper versus I’ve got to be the point guard and have the ball and do all the shooting and all that,” Coach Cal said. “It took three years now, but when he changed, it changed his life.”
The fruit of Liggins’ labor was on show Sunday night when Liggins got a start for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, but what was most impressive – what earned him praise from leading NBA MVP candidate Kevin Durant – was his defensive ability. Calipari showed his team film of Liggins’ game Sunday night.
All it takes to be a lockdown defender, Coach Cal says, is a mentality. Liggins and Kidd-Gilchrist have it.
“They took pride in it,” Calipari said. “Just said it’s not acceptable. I’m playing you and I’m not fouling you. There’s a pride in that, and you’ve got to take that on as who you want to be.”
Based on Elston Turner’s 40-point performance Saturday, no one has embraced that mentality yet on this Kentucky team.
Calipari said Turner deserves much of the credit for making tough shots and noted that Turner used the whole “Kentucky’s everybody’s Super Bowl” effect to motivate him, but would any of those previous teams allowed it to get that far?
“Believe me, he got tape of that,” Calipari said of Turner’s game. “His grandchildren will be watching that tape.”
After Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein got shots at guarding Turner, Calipari went with freshman guard Archie Goodwin for most of the second half. Goodwin actually did a pretty good job on Turner, holding him without a second-half field goal for nearly 11 minutes, but Turner got going again as Goodwin wore down.
“He did good and he tired out and he shouldn’t have been in the game,” Coach Cal said. “He should have been out and I left him in there trying to finish out the game. The last five minutes, we’re up four and he just dies on screens and gets beat and he couldn’t sustain it. Well, he shouldn’t have been in the game that long. That’s not his fault, that’s my fault.”
Calipari believes Goodwin could eventually be that stopper he’s looking for, but it will take a commitment and a mentality that Goodwin has only shown flashes of at times. Ultimately, Coach Cal said he could go with a zone, a defensive strategy he hasn’t shown a lot of over his career but went with at times against the Aggies.
“We spent more time on zone defense in the last two weeks that we have in my entire coaching career,” Calipari said.
Calipari said he “hate(s)” zone and prefers man-to-man defense, but it’s about what’s best for the team.
“We’ve won a lot of games, a lot of league championships, a lot of league tournament championships, a lot of NCAA games playing man, so I know that’s the best way to do it,” Calipari said. “But I also know, more than anything else, I want this team to have a chance to win. So I’ve got to look at everything and say how and be honest about it and not worry about me because it’s not about me. This is about this team.”
Despite two losses in the last four games and talk of a weak NCAA Tournament résumé, Calipari has actually been somewhat pleased with his team’s progress. At a team meeting Sunday night, Calipari realized that all of his freshmen are playing the best basketball of their careers and working as hard as they ever have in their lives.
The problem is this is UK where everything is on “warp speed” and freshmen are expected to develop fast. Calipari understands that, and that’s why he’s asking for more change.
He’s hoping to see more of it Tuesday night when the Cats take on Tennessee at 7 p.m.
“If you don’t change, if you don’t recognize and then begin to change, there’s not going to be a change on the court,” Coach Cal said. “You just keep getting beat. Again, my vision is there’s no one late in the season that’s going to want to play this team – if we get it right. But, right now it appears everybody wants to play this team.”
It was lost in the final outcome of Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M, but the Herculean effort by Noel on Saturday was not lost on Coach Cal.
“If that (Turner) kid doesn’t get 40 and we win the game, the country is talking about Nerlens,” Calipari said. “But we lost and the kid got 40.”
That’s the way things can go sometimes at Kentucky when you deal in results. Texas A&M won and Turner had the big night, so Noel got overlooked.
But there’s no denying that Noel, who has had to fill the shoes of Anthony Davis while dealing with the expectations of being a top draft pick, played his best game in a Kentucky uniform. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the freshman forward’s 15-point, 11-rebound, seven-block, six-assist, four-steal line was the first time a Division-I player had reached those marks in a single game since the 1996-97 season.
“He was the main reason that we stayed in the game,” Goodwin said Saturday.
Noel still has a ways to go offensively, but there is no doubt he’s made significant strides since the beginning of the season. Once limited to put-backs and alley-oops, Noel has developed a decent back-to-the-basket game.
“Guys couldn’t hold him in the post and we should have done a better job of getting him the ball more and more than we did,” Goodwin said. “He should have been the focal point of our offense tonight.”
Noel’s defense has even gotten better. While he likely won’t match Davis’ single-season record, he’d finish with 149 blocks – far and away the second-best mark in UK single-season history – if he keeps at his current pace and plays the same amount of games (40) as Davis.
The most encouraging part of Noel’s performance, though, was his energy. He seems to have embraced his role the leader on this team.
“Cal’s done enough for us,” Noel said. “It’s about time we take the responsibility for things. We’ve been doing pretty good, but we just got to kick it up a notch and keep listening to Coach. He’s definitely pointing us in the right direction, but there’s a time that us as players got to take responsibility, and I feel that time is now.”