After Kentucky’s 103-100 victory over North Carolina on Saturday, John Calipari found a way to give thanks to Malik Monk.
“I made two players in our locker room stand up and come up and hug him because he saved them. ... ,” Calipari said.
Then, Calipari added the kicker.
“Now,” he said, “I hope there is a point where he’s got to go hug one of them for something he’s done that they covered his back.”
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Message: Kentucky can’t be Kentucky if dependent on a historic performance by one player. Calipari’s goal of each player improving, and therefore Kentucky improving, will continue after a victory over the Tar Heels that pulsated with clutch plays and fearless resolve.
Calipari refused to say what players hugged Monk, whose 47 points were the most by a UK player since Jodie Meeks had 54 in 2009.
But a good guess would be Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis, who continue to struggle defensively.
“What’s happened to us is people are exploiting individual players on my team,” Calipari said. He didn’t name names.
“We’ve got to figure it out as a staff: How are we going to do this?” he said. “They’re exploiting one, two, and three players. The minute they go in, they go right at them. Every team is doing the same thing. We’re working really hard with those guys to try to get them to be able to just, how about this one, stay in front of a guy with your hand up. You don’t have to take it from him. Just be in front of him and have your hand up so he can’t just shoot a jump shot.”
Calipari said much the same thing earlier this season when asked how he’d like Gabriel and Willis to begin improving as defenders. Stay in front of your man, he said.
Justin Jackson scored 34 points for North Carolina. He was guarded at times by Gabriel and Willis as well as Isaiah Briscoe.
“He knew, as soon as he saw Isaiah was on him, he said, ‘Okay, we’ll take him inside,’” the UK coach said. “The minute I put one of those other guys on him, he took him outside. And Roy (Williams, the UNC coach) kept going back at him, just like I kept going at Malik. And that’s what it became.”
Calipari did name names when pointing out how other UK players can improve.
Big man Bam Adebayo, who fouled out in 19 minutes, must see the wisdom in the old saying about discretion being the better part of valor.
“Bam has to understand you can’t go near people,” Calipari said. “Like when they’re driving in and they’re going to have a layup, then give them the lay-up. I keep telling them, this isn’t football. That is not a touchdown. We may score in four seconds. Give them the layup.”
Calipari did not spare Monk when pointing out how players can improve. The UK coach asked how many rebounds Monk had. Zero was the answer.
“Now, he puts his head on the rim, and not the top of his head, it’s his chin,” Calipari said. “And you don’t get a rebound?”
Calipari called again for Monk to get to the foul line more.
“Get to the line 10 times a game,” Calipari said. “Why? Because you can. Are they going to play him to shoot jump shots? Yeah. What if they switch and there is a big guy on him, you have to shoot a jump shot? Can’t guard you. Get there (to the free-throw line).”
Calipari welcomed how Kentucky answered the rebounding challenge presented by North Carolina. UK won the boards 39-35, marking the first time this season the Tar Heels had been out-rebounded.
“I can’t believe it,” Calipari said. “Never thought it would happen.”
UK also got the competitive test it wanted. “This game was what a game should be,” Calipari said. “They make a play, you better make one. They miss a shot, you better come up with one, and you can’t panic. You’ve got to do your stuff.”
Another such test may come Wednesday when Kentucky plays at No. 11 Louisville. But Calipari said he was thinking longer term.
“I’m glad we won,” he said. “But if we had lost that game, I’d be saying it’s Dec. 17, and this is who we are on Dec. 17 against a really good team. Good enough to beat them. Good enough to lose to them. That’s who we are.
“Now my thing is: Where are we going to be one month from now? Now we’ve got another war in three or four days after we traveled half a country away to go back home and play Louisville on the road, which is going to be another war.”