Kentucky players eager to show what they've been learning

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talked with Kentucky Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison (5) as #18 Kentucky played #6 Louisville on Saturday December 28, 2013 in Lexington ,Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

Kentucky basketball's latest mantra: If you have the ball, look to pass. If you don't have the ball, look to score.

UK Coach John Calipari would like to see this bedrock principle — which at first reading might seem counter-intuitive — on display the rest of the season beginning with Wednesday night's Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State.

"It's weird," point guard Andrew Harrison said Tuesday, "but we definitely understand where he's coming from and what he means by it. Just being ready and moving to the open spot when you don't have the ball."

On the high school level, the kind of star players bound for Kentucky typically think shoot first ... and second and third.

"'I'm going to score this ball,'" Calipari said of the mind-set he's trying to change. "'And if I can't score it, I'm going to throw it to you. But before I do, I'm going to take one more look to see if I can score.'"

With UK, Calipari wants more ball and player movement, less waiting and watching when a teammate has the ball. For example, he noted how Julius Randle is a willing and effective passer when trapped in the low post. But after passing the ball to the perimeter, Randle needs to then re-double his efforts to be a scoring threat in the post, Calipari said.

The UK coach said Harrison put the mantra to good use in a recent practice. Four times he either scored or passed for a basket. "When he didn't have (the ball)," Calipari said. "It came to him.

"We're looking around. Maybe he's got it."

Five minutes later, the coaches saw Harrison standing by idly instead of being ready to take the initiative should the ball come his way, Calipari said good-naturedly as reporters laughed.

"When you do catch a pass, you're in attack mode," he said, "or shooting."

And if you've got the ball, "You're not holding it for everyone to play you," Calipari said.

Coming off a period of 10 days without a game (the longest such hiatus since 1976 without an early-season tournament or made-for-television game involved), Kentucky hopes to put its mantra on display against Mississippi State. The Cats spent the time away from games working on getting to know one another better.

"It starts there," Calipari said.

Of course, the Cats also worked on improving individually and collectively.

Calipari said he'd like to see a more intense defensive approach against State. He'd also like to see the ball moving more and a team more attuned to the "sequence of the game," meaning not shooting or passing because you couldn't think of anything else to do, but doing either with a purpose.

The Cats also worked to break bad basketball habits. "Their basketball habits stink," Calipari said in laying it on thick for his audience of media types. "I mean, just the worst. I'm telling you.

"If we can change it to where we want it, it's on! Right now, it's still, let's see it in games."

Kentucky also revamped its transition offense.

"All the stuff we practiced for two months, we're not running it that way anymore," Calipari said. "I didn't like it."

Calipari spoke of how he wanted players to "run blind" like a wide receiver who diligently runs patterns with effort even though he knows the play does not call for him to get the ball.

Mississippi State serves as the first opponent to test-fire what Kentucky has been doing in practice.

"Let's see what steps we've taken," Calipari said of the game against State as a measuring stick.

The Cats will be eager to play. When asked if he was ready to play a game, Harrison could not suppress a telling smile. "I'm very excited to play that game,' he said. "I'm just ready to see some new faces on the court."

Calipari noted that Kentucky has played only two games in the past 24 days. State begins an abrupt change that includes three games in seven days, including road games at testing environments (Vanderbilt and Arkansas).

"We may be rusty," Calipari said. The UK coach wants to see the fruits of recent labors on display Wednesday night. "I just want to see that there's carryover."


WEDNESDAY

Mississippi St. at No. 14 Kentucky

When: 8 p.m.

Records: MSU (10-3); UK (10-3, 0-0)

Series: UK leads 89-20

Last meeting: Kentucky won 85-55 on Feb. 27, 2013, at Lexington.

TV: SEC Network (WKYT-27 in Lexington)

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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