As recently as Tuesday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari had talked about opponents choosing to sag defenses into the lane in the hopes that Kentucky would not make perimeter shots.
Cleveland State did not sag its defense, but instead played its signature pressuring defense. But after UK’s 101-70 victory, the Vikings’ coach saw the wisdom in clogging the lane with defenders against Kentucky.
When asked about UK’s biggest flaws, Gary Waters said, “If you look at that score, I’d say zero.”
Then, he added, “Probably their perimeter shooting. If (opponents) can have some folks that keep (De’Aaron) Fox out of the middle and make others beat you, you’ve got a chance.”
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Against Cleveland State, Kentucky made six of its first eight three-point shots to get the rout started. Malik Monk led the way, making four of four three-point shots in a 19-point first half.
Monk’s 16 three-point baskets in the first five games belies his reputation as a streaky shooter.
“I think I’m a consistent shooter,” he said.
But Calipari said he did not want Monk to become overly dependent on the perimeter shot. “I want him to drive the ball more and get to the rim,” the UK coach said. “ ... I know he can shoot threes. But I don’t want him to settle for that.”
Overall, Kentucky made a season-high nine three-point shots and shot with a season’s best 37.5-percent accuracy from beyond the arc.
Earlier in the week, Waters all but predicted Kentucky’s good perimeter shooting.
Yes, he said, opponents may play a sagging defense. “But I think eventually they’re going to figure that out,” Waters said of the Cats. “These kids are not bad shooters. They’re just not hitting shots. Eventually, when they get confident, they’ll hit the shots.”
Waters saluted how UK players seem willing to play defense.
“It’s probably the hardest we have played against a team where they guarded our guards that hard,” the Cleveland State coach said. “And you know what the crazy part about it is? They enjoy doing it.
“When you get guards who play on the defensive end that hard, you can have a lot of success.”
Cleveland State committed 19 turnovers. Through five games, UK opponents have averaged 20.6 turnovers. The opposition’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 8.8-to-20.6.
Sophomore leader Isaiah Briscoe sat out the game because of a back injury. Calipari made it seem that Briscoe could play again as soon as Friday against Tennessee-Martin.
“He was hurting after the last game, and then he tried to practice ... ,” Calipari said. “You can’t be 75 percent with the way we’re playing.
“So he took today and tomorrow off, and (we’ll) see if he can go Friday. If he can’t go Friday, we’ll just hope he’s ready for Monday.”
UK plays Arizona State on Monday in the Bahamas.
Dominique Hawkins’ bad luck with injuries continued. Because of Briscoe’s injury, Hawkins made his 10th career start.
But a knee contusion limited him to six minutes against Cleveland State.
“He’s got buzzard’s luck now,” Calipari said. “This poor kid. But he’s going to be fine.”
▪ Calipari likened the way Bam Adebayo throws outlet passes to Wes Unseld, a former Louisville All-American who set the standard for igniting NBA fast breaks in the late 1960s and 1970s.
“His outlet pass to half-court?” Calipari said of Unseld. “That’s Bam.”
▪ Mychal Mulder’s ticket to more playing time is better defense. “Mychal’s got to defend,” Calipari said. “Straight-line drive. Straight-line drive. No rebound. I mean, come on.”
▪ Wenyen Gabriel continued to post busy statistical lines. He had 10 points, a team-high 10 rebounds, six assists and a block. “We don’t even talk about him,” Calipari said. “ ... More people call me about Wenyen than anybody else because of how hard he works and what he does.”
To put it mildly, Calipari takes a keen coaching interest in his point guard.
“It’s been extremely tough,” Fox said. “He’s been on me a lot. When I don’t put guys in the right positions, he lets me know.”
Fox takes a philosophical approach to Calipari’s high-volume coaching: birds must fly, fish must swim, coaches must scream.
“I don’t over-react when a coach yells,” Fox said. “You never see me get my head down or brush him off. I listen to what he says.”
It was the third time Cleveland State had played Kentucky in Calipari’s eight seasons as coach.
Yes, Waters said, he has a connection to Calipari. The two serve together on an ad hoc committee formed by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
They first got to know each other when Calipari was at UMass and Waters at Eastern Michigan.
“We’ve got some history,” Waters said.
Waters liked the early-afternoon tip. That enabled Cleveland State to return home Wednesday night.
“I want them home for Thanksgiving,” Waters said of his players.
Mychal Mulder’s father, Randy, attended the game. He missed the Duquesne game in which his son set or equaled eight career highs, including 13 points and 20 minutes.
The elder Mulder saw his son set or equal five career-highs against Cleveland State: 13 points, five baskets, three three-pointers, a block and 22 minutes of playing time.
The elder Mulder drives from his home in Ontario, Canada, to most UK home games the past two seasons.
En route to the Cleveland State game, he was stopped for speeding around Butler County, Ohio. For the second time, the police gave him only a warning to slow down.
▪ Calipari’s record as coach of the No. 1-ranked team improved to 108-11 (.908 winning percentage). Calipari has the second-most victories as the coach of a No. 1 team. He has a long way to go to have the most such victories. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has won 193 games with a No. 1-ranked team.
▪ On the plus side, it’s safe to say Krzyzewski will never threaten Calipari’s status as the winningest coach in Rupp Arena. The victory over Cleveland State moved Calipari past Joe B. Hall as the winningest coach in Rupp Arena. His Rupp record improved to 123-4.