John Clay: Cats need to fix transition defense

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 9, 2014 

Eight games remaining in the regular season, dark clouds and silver linings for Kentucky men's basketball:

Dark cloud: For whatever reason, transition defense is a chronic problem for this team. Players fail to sprint back after missed shots. Players don't rotate correctly. Players don't take it upon themselves to stop the ball on fast breaks.

All that happened way back in November when Kentucky lost to Michigan State in Chicago.

All that happened Saturday when Kentucky won at Mississippi State, whose coach, Rick Ray, said afterward that film study led the Bulldogs to believe there were run-out opportunities. He was right.

Silver lining: It's not like John Calipari is unaware of the problem. The Kentucky coach continues to harp on the fact some players are wrapped up in their play instead of team play.

A player misses a shot, he hangs his head instead of sprinting back. That doesn't mean he's a bad kid. It means he's a young kid. Bad habits are hard to break.

Dark cloud: Though the issue was identified a long time ago, it's still not fixed.

Silver lining: There are still eight games to go.

Dark cloud: The Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, remain roller-coaster riders. Aaron missed 11 of 15 shots on Saturday. Andrew encountered foul trouble that limited his floor time to a mere 15 minutes.

Silver lining: Savvy senior Jarrod Polson contributed 30 solid minutes, his most in an SEC game.

Polson was a calming influence on a squad rattled a bit in the first half. He is a player who knows his role.

Dark cloud: Despite scoring a game-high 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds, Julius Randle earned some high-decibel in-game coaching and post-game criticism from the head coach.

Calipari said his star forward acted like a "baby" with regards to executing coaching commands. Chastised for not helping center Dakari Johnson on defense, Randle over-helped, which allowed State to sink a pair of threes.

Silver lining: Randle's numbers are both steady and pretty impressive for any freshman not named Julius Randle. Calipari wants more because he knows Randle is capable of delivering more. There are worse problems.

Dark cloud: Kentucky made just three of 18 three-pointers at The Hump. James Young started the game as though his mind was set on a high-scoring afternoon.

The freshman took five of UK's first seven shots. That, and a defensive mistake, didn't seem to sit well with Calipari, who quickly yanked the Michigan native.

Silver lining: UK has enough offensive weapons with Randle, the Harrison twins and others, and enough size around the rim that it doesn't have to rely on three-point shooting.

Calipari has continually preached this team is not a three-point shooting team. If Young can get more comfortable with contact, he has the ability to be a slasher as well as a perimeter shooter.

Dark cloud: Saturday afternoon's affair was far from artistic. Mississippi State shot 28 percent the first half. Kentucky missed six of seven three-pointers the second half. The teams combined for 19 assists and 22 turnovers.

Silver lining: Part of what makes college basketball great is unexpected happenings, such as the lightly used Jon Hood popping up off the bench in a time of need to give the Cats a first-half spark. The Madisonville native buried a key three-pointer and hustled his heart out.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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