With his team in a five-game morass, Kentucky Coach John Calipari offered a simple and direct response.
“When it takes you three weeks to get to a point,” he said Friday, “it’s going to take you time to get out of it because you’re trying to create different habits both offensively and defensively.”
The message of no quick fixes applied to five-star freshman Hamidou Diallo, who joined the UK team at semester break with the understanding of using this season as preparation for a debut in 2017-2018.
Calipari seemed to rule out even being tempted to play Diallo.
“No,” he said. “That not been on my mind. I’m trying to get the guys we have right now to do what they’re capable of doing.”
Toward that end, Calipari said the UK players must take greater pride in defending. Six of the eight best shooting performances by Kentucky opponents this season have come in the last seven games. The outliers were UCLA and North Carolina, each making 53 percent of its shots against the Cats.
Kentucky, which takes a 19-5 record to a game at Alabama on Saturday, is tied for first place in the Southeastern Conference. But UK is on pace to be a poor defensive team, by Kentucky standards. Opponents have averaged 74.2 points, which would be the highest since Kentucky foes averaged 74.6 in 1993-94.
UK’s rapid pace which creates more possessions could explain part of that. But opponents’ 43 percent shooting is on pace for the highest since 45.7 in 1991-92.
The contrast between first and second halves in the last five games has been startling. Opponents have shot 39.7 percent in first halves, and 58.8 percent in second halves.
Calipari called on Kentucky players to take “great pride” in defending.
“Some of it is guys have to take this personal,’ he said. “. . . ‘I’m not letting a guy go by me. It’s not happening.’”
Calipari cited how his star freshman at Memphis, Derrick Rose, took a challenge personally in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
“He’s playing against another point guard they’re talking about,” Calipari said. “He says to me before the game, ‘Watch this.’ And I watched it. I watched him go and absolutely dominate the guy.”
Calipari may have been referring to Memphis playing Texas, which was led by consensus All-America point guard D.J. Augustin. Rose scored 21 points, had nine assists and six rebounds. Augustin scored 18, but made only four of 18 shots. Memphis won 85-67.
Not for the first time this season, Calipari hinted at an ultimatum: Play better defense or don’t play. For instance, he said he could play five guys 40 minutes. Maybe use a sixth player in case of foul trouble.
More teams around the country are going to shorter rotations, Calipari said. He named Syracuse as one.
“I’m not playing as many guys (and) you’ll have to deal with it,” he said. “We’re not at that point yet.”
That threat might seem empty with a player like Malik Monk, who has not yet answered Calipari’s call for more rebounding and better defense. But Monk is the team’s leading scorer and the player UK looks to when it needs a basket.
Calipari said he had spoken to Monk about not rebounding nor defending to an adequate standard.
Monk has the third-highest vertical leap on UK’s team (42 inches). He did not grab a single rebound in the last two games (a total of 70 minutes).
“How are we dealing with this?” Calipari said he asked Monk. “He said, ‘Tell me, Coach. If I don’t do it, sit me.’”
This kind of thinking must be put in the context of team defense, Calipari said.
“If they think, ‘I’m OK, it’s everybody else,’ that’s when you have issues,” the UK coach said.
Kentucky plays at Alabama on Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve got a month to get this right,” Calipari said. “These guys are in a great frame of mind right now.”
No. 15 Kentucky at Alabama
When: 1 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 19-5 (9-2 SEC), Alabama 14-9 (7-4)
Series: Kentucky leads 108-37
Last meeting: Kentucky won 85-59 on March 11, 2016, in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament at Nashville.