Running the press

During the latter half of the preseason, Kentucky players talked about how much they had been looking forward to playing other opponents. They were tired of facing off against their own teammates, already knowing what schemes worked against one another and what didn’t. So was head coach John Calipari.

One of the big question marks going into the first game of the season was what kind of defensive scheme would best suit this year’s team. Calipari sure wasn’t getting closer to knowing the answer watching his guys constantly play against each other in the practice gym.

“Are we going to press?” Calipari said at Media Day. “We haven’t done one thing about zone right now. Everybody in my opinion’s going to zone us. What are we going to do, pick-and-roll defense? I know what we’ve done in the past and it’s been successful, but do we do it now? I don’t know yet.”

Junior Derek Willis said he has enjoyed playing the press defensively. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

Junior Derek Willis said he has enjoyed playing the press defensively. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

Though he hasn’t run it often, the press defense has been successful at UK in the past. Calipari has prided himself on having fast players who can run the entire floor against other teams, pressuring them the moment they touch the ball.

It’s a scheme that seems logical now more than ever, especially with the shot clock being reduced to 30 seconds this year. The more pressure you put on a team defensively, the longer it takes it to setup and run its offense.

Ottawa was the first test subject of this scheme. Calipari ran two different kinds of press defense against the Braves, testing to see which one worked the best.

Finally seeing it play out against another team, the head coach was getting closer to finding the answer that plagued him before.

“Again, we needed to press,” said Calipari after the exhibition. “We did it for two reasons, conditioning. I wanted us just to keep guys in and let them try to see where they are if we had to play a full game. Press, they throw it up the court, you get back into your man-to-man. That’s what we’d like to be able to do.”

It’s the same press scheme Calipari said he used during his first year at UK, when he had players like John Wall, Darius Miller, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson to run the floor. Calipari said he liked seeing how it worked then and would like to duplicate its success this season.

“Haven’t really run it since,” he said of the scheme. “I’d like to run it with this team. You know me well enough. If we’re giving up layups or open shots, I can’t take it. We won’t use that press. But that’s a press that should be good for us because of our personnel.”

The result supported the reasoning. The Cats held Ottawa to 26 percent from the floor in their 117-58 win. Guards Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray were constantly in the face of the Braves’ ball carriers, much akin to Wall and Bledsoe before them. Junior forward Marcus Lee was seen running the entire floor with his man, like Patterson did before him.

UK can run the press effectively thanks to athletically gifted big men, such as Marcus Lee. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

UK can run the press effectively thanks to athletically gifted big men, such as Marcus Lee. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

“I love the press,” Lee said. “The press is my best friend because I get to show my athleticism and my defensive ability.”

And if it worked once against the first team, why not try it again in the next game?

UK clamped down on Kentucky State in the second exhibition game, winning 111-58. The Cats again held their opponent to under 30 percent shooting for the game and even added 10 blocks to the mix.

Kentucky State head coach Darnell Williams lamented about UK’s size and speed, acknowledging that when combined, it makes life difficult for any team having to go against its defense.

“I’m just glad we don’t have to play another team like them all year,” Williams said. “They’ve got size, more size and players. Skal (Labissiere), long. Isaac Humphries, he’s huge. They’re a real good team.”

Coach Cal pointed out that the Thorobreds ran a different type of offense against the Cats than the Braves did, one which was more fast-paced.

All the more information to process and analyze for the coach when considering what defense to run.

“If we’re being attacked, maybe that’s not the press we use,” Calipari said. “The press that we’re running is against a team that doesn’t want to pick up play. This team wanted to go. So a team like that, you don’t need the press as much, because they will run anyway. If it’s a team that wants to hold the ball a little bit, I know it’s a good press to use. But in this game we learned about our press. We’re working on the press and what they did is they gave me some stuff to look at to make us better.”

This time, Derek Willis stood out with his ability to run with the defense, with Calipari saying the junior forward “took minutes” with his performance. If you ask Willis about what he thinks about the scheme, he’ll nod and smile.

“I like it,” Willis said about the press. “I think that’s how we should play honestly. We’re all long and athletic. I think we just need to pick it up more on energy and we’ll be fine.”

But running at that constant speed throughout a game can be tiresome. That’s why Calipari wanted to test the endurance of his players in the two exhibition wins to see where they stand before Friday’s regular season opener against Albany.

But Calipari isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes to find what defensive scheme works best for the team, what press to run and who on the court can run it the best.

And with each opponent the Cats face, he’s getting closer to finding those answers.

“You can’t keep guys in seven straight minutes the way we’re playing if we’re going to press and run,” Calipari said. “But I have played guys. I think Brandon Knight played 37 minutes a game. I had two guards at UMass that played 38 and 39 minutes. I’ll do that, oh yeah. I will do that.”