Cal’s switch to zone just enough to slow down Missouri

COLUMBIA, MO. — There are some promises you just can’t keep. For John Calipari, that seemed to be the use of a zone defense.

For most of Coach Cal’s career, he’s won with tough-nosed, man-to-man defense, so there’s never really been a reason to change course. He’d talked about using a zone with this lengthy team and even teased it by using it in a couple of games, but he had never really gone to it with the outcome on the line.

Until Saturday.

Struggling to slow Missouri’s high-scoring back court, Calipari added a much-needed wrinkle to his defense on Saturday with a 2-3 zone. It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered in Kentucky’s 84-79 victory over Missouri, temporarily slowing down Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson late in the first half and allowing UK to build a 10-point halftime lead.

“We started screwing up the game a little bit,” Calipari said of using the zone.

Brown and Clarkson looked unstoppable for much of the afternoon, but for the few minutes UK was in zone, the Missouri duo looked hesitant with two defenders roaming the top of the arc. The zone was only temporary and Coach Cal only used it for a few possessions in the second half, but the advantage UK gained at the end of the first half was too big for Missouri to come all the way back.

“This is a long team,” Calipari said. “This is a big team. This is a good zone team if they’ll scramble. But you also got to rebound.”

UK started the game by trapping, a defensive strategy Calipari regretted not going with early in the LSU game.

“All I was thinking about prior to the game: Alright, if one of these guys gets going, I don’t want this to be Texas A&M,” Calipari said, referencing Elston Turner’s 40-point game at Rupp Arena last season. “If you don’t know, we had a kid get like 56 on us. That’s why we trapped Brown early. We just trapped them.”

Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson combined for 61 points Saturday, but they may have scored even more had UK not switched to a 2-3 zone for a few minutes. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

The trapping only worked so long.

Kentucky’s guards started to struggle stopping Missouri’s dribble penetration, forcing Coach Cal’s hand. Sensing a need for change, Calipari went against his defensive roots and implemented the zone. He said the zone was by design and not because of foul trouble with his big men.

“We were going to go every free throw and then we went zone twice and they scored twice and I went, ‘There’s your zone,’ ” Coach Cal said.

Some fans wondered on Twitter why Calipari didn’t go back to the zone more often in the second half when Missouri scored 47 points and shot 56.3 percent from the field, but zone wouldn’t have solved UK’s most glaring defensive problem.

“How about our transition defense after made goals?” Calipari said

He wasn’t asking for good reasons.

The Cats surrendered 18 fast-break points Saturday and a number more when Missouri pushed the ball after made field goals. UK’s porous transition defense allowed the Tigers to shoot 52.9 percent for the game.

It’s the first time in the Calipari era a Kentucky team has allowed back-to-back opponents to shoot 50 percent or better. Underscoring the Cats’ defensive struggles: UK has allowed just eight teams to shoot 50 percent or better during Coach Cal’s four-and-a-half seasons at Kentucky, but three of those have taken place in the last seven games.

Much ado about nothing

Dakari Johnson finally got a start in place of Wilile Cauley-Stein on Saturday, but neither of them had much of an impact on the game.

Johnson picked up two fouls in the first 3:21 of game time and Cauley-Stein quickly followed with three fouls by the 11:46 mark. Combined, the two centers played just 18 minutes, scoring only two points and grabbing one rebound.

Marcus Lee threw down a sweet reverse alley-oop in the first half off a lob pass from Jarrod Polson. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“We won without Willie again, and that’s hard,” Calipari said.

Marcus Lee played nine minutes with Johnson and Cauely-Stein saddled in foul trouble, but Calipari also used Alex Poythress at the five.

“Marcus Lee was great,” Coach Cal said.

It was the first time UK has used a different starting five in 14 games and the first time in program history the Cats started five freshmen on the road.

No shoot-around, no problem

For the second straight trip and the third time this year, UK ran into weather problems on the road.

The Cats’ team plane was diverted to St. Louis on Friday night because of a wintry mix of sleet and ice in Columbia, Mo., forcing the Cats to bus two hours to the team hotel. UK arrived around midnight local time.

Kentucky did not go through its normal pregame shoot-around on Saturday because of the late arrival and early tip.

“It was really hard for us, but we actually got a lot of sleep out of it so I think that probably helped us and helped us focus during the game,” James Young said. “We got here early so we just have to get out here earlier and get a lot of shots up to prepare for the game.”