With Kentucky staring at the possibility of its first three-game losing streak since the Billy Gillispie era, John Calipari asked the players for suggestions.
“Sleep on it,” he said. “And if you come up with something, come and see me. And we’ll talk about it.”
The ideas Calipari offered the media at Monday’s news conference involved more toughness, fewer turnovers and more disruptive defense on the ball-handler.
Calipari said he reviewed with the players the 17 turnovers, one by one, in Saturday’s loss to Kansas. That was a season high for Kentucky, but worse, it led to 21 transition points for the Jayhawks. And the UK turnovers leading to opposition scoring was nothing new. In the last four games, UK opponents have averaged 20.3 points off turnovers.
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“You can’t win a game that way,” Calipari said.
The UK coach repeated a familiar lament, “casual play,” as the reason for too many of the turnovers. “The look-away pass to the wing when you don’t have to” throw the ball, he said. In contrast, “aggressive” turnovers “don’t lead to baskets at the other end,” he said.
Kentucky, which plays Georgia Tuesday, also must improve its defense, Calipari said. Two of the last four opponents have made half or more of their shots. The last four opponents — Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kansas — have shot with a healthy 48.2-percent accuracy.
Take away the three-point attempts, and those four teams made 54.7 percent of their shots against Kentucky.
Calipari cited too many straight-line drives all the way to the basket. Freshman Lamar Peters of Mississippi State driving repeatedly for layups come to mind. So do drives by Sindarius Thornwell (South Carolina), Robert Hubbs III and even Lew Evans (Tennessee), then Frank Mason III (Kansas). Hubbs and Mason were named their league’s Player of the Week.
The required antidote starts with the player guarding the ball, Calipari said. That often is point guard De’Aaron Fox.
“You have to be able to go up and play people,” Calipari said.
Calipari said he asked the players since the loss to Kansas who could be a defensive “stopper.”
“A couple said, ‘Some day I hope to be,’” Calipari said. “But there were five or six who said, ‘I can be. I’m a stopper.’” A wry smile crossed the UK coach’s face.
Nor is Kentucky getting the kind of rim protection that blunted many drives in previous seasons. After pointing out that UK is starting a smaller lineup than in some recent seasons, he said, “We really should be a better shot-blocking team than we are.”
Going into Monday night’s play, Kentucky ranked eighth nationally with an average of six blocks per game. Yet, there have been multiple drives to the basket for uncontested scores by opponents.
42.1 Shooting percentage by UK opponents this season, which is on track for the highest of the Calipari era and the highest since 2005-06
“We’re not blocking the shots we should block,” Calipari said. “We’re not the greatest shot-blocking team. But we’re pretty good.
“The issue becomes straight-line drives. The issue becomes whoever is guarding the ball, you’ve got to get up in this guy. You’ve got to disrupt them.”
Without a disruptive defender on the ball (think Tyler Ulis last season), a team must try to trick the opponent with changing defenses and so-called junk defenses like a triangle-and-two.
Calipari cited two areas where more toughness can benefit Kentucky. Getting loose balls, or 50/50 balls in current basketball parlance, is needed, he said.
Calipari also mentioned a mental toughness.
“When the game’s winding down, having a refuse-to-lose attitude,” he said.
Yet, Kentucky did not submit meekly in the losses at Tennessee and to Kansas. Rather the Vols and Jayhawks had to make clutch plays to stave off UK. The same was true in losses at Louisville and to UCLA.
It could be said that UCLA, Louisville, Tennessee and Kansas also refused to lose. And, especially in the case of Kansas, had the know-how to actually not lose.
“My one worry was they had been in all close games except West Virginia …,” Calipari said of the Jayhawks. “Their guards pulled every one of those games out. Our guards hadn’t been in enough close games. And when we were, we were turning it over.”
Calipari voiced confidence that the inconsistency represented by turnovers and porous defense can be fixed.
“I’m not panicked,” he said.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. Georgia at Rupp Arena
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 17-4 (7-1 SEC), Georgia 13-8 (4-4)
Series: Kentucky leads 121-26
Last meeting: Kentucky won 93-80 on March 12, 2016, in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament at Nashville.