As John Calipari likes to say, Kentucky basketball is not for players who are faint of heart. That’s especially true for point guards.
However unnecessary, Calipari provided further proof after Kentucky beat Illinois-Chicago on Sunday. Early in his postgame news conference, he asked and answered a question that returned the onus on another point guard. Reporters nodded knowingly.
“I’m all over Quade (Green),” he said. “I told him after the game, ‘Who am I on the most?’
Quade Green is the latest in a long line of freshmen to play foundational roles as Calipari point guards, and thus become the focus of his urgings to do more/do better/do consistently. For Green, in particular, this means setting a faster pace on offense and playing more effectively on defense, as Calipari has said repeatedly.
To drive home his point Sunday, Calipari likened Green’s still-embryonic transition to Kentucky basketball to one of his heralded predecessors.
“This was kind of like what happened with us when we had Marquis Teague,” Calipari said. “If you remember those first seven, eight, nine games, where everybody was losing their mind, and I was trying to get him to play a certain way that he just wasn’t used to playing.”
In the first seven games of his one-and-done 2011-12 season, Teague barely had more assists (29) than turnovers (25). In three of those games, he had five or more turnovers. His assist-to-turnover ratio did not move permanently into positive territory until Game 6 (eight assists, no turnovers against Portland).
Ultimately, Teague’s UK season had the happiest of endings. The Cats won the national championship. He finished with an almost two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio (191 assists, 109 turnovers). In six NCAA Tournament games, he had 29 assists and 15 turnovers. (By the way, he now plays for the Memphis Hustle, the G League affiliate of the Memphis Grizzlies.)
Green must adjust to a relatively unfamiliar style of basketball. His high school coach, Carl Arrigale, said that when Green was a sophomore and junior, the team played fast. Maybe not Kentucky fast, but not walk-it-up, either. With Green one of four guards who would move on to the Division I level, the team even used some dribble-drive actions, Arrigale said.
But Green was the only remaining guard last season, and with the team adding size, Neumann-Goretti High played at a slower pace.
“He was a ball-dominant player last year,” Arrigale said. “I think that might be his big adjustment, now: Trying to get rid of the ball sooner.”
Deference from teammates last season further ingrained Green’s reluctance to play too fast. Of the team’s version of transition offense, Arrigale said, “I think our guys were so respectful of him and who he was that we threw the ball backwards (to Green) more than anything. Guys didn’t want to advance it without him touching it.”
Of course, Green can supply Kentucky’s offense with much-needed perimeter shooting. Through seven games, he’s made half his shots from beyond the arc (eight of 16). Only Kevin Knox has more three-pointers (11), but he has shot almost twice as many (31).
Shooting ability puts Green on the court, Calipari said. It’s also a reason Green should be ready to pass ahead on the break and give up the ball more readily in half-court situations.
“I don’t need him dribbling 12 times,” Calipari said. “I need him to get rid of it, and get away from it, so we can get it back to him and score baskets.”
Green’s assignment on defense is to stay in front of the opposing point guard and, if possible, cause turnovers by being a disruptive presence.
Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes got to the rim enough times that Calipari replaced Green. Perhaps tellingly, that hasn’t happened again.
Although Green was a five-star prospect revered by teammates and opponents, Arrigale said he stressed the importance of defense.
“I reminded him of that plenty of times in practice last year,” said Arrigale, who recalled his admonitions sounding something like, “‘If you think you can get away with this in the SEC, you’re out of your mind.’”
Arrigale said that he has watched the telecasts of Kentucky’s games. He sees Green as a player in transition. Besides getting familiar with a different style of play, Green must also adjust to the college game being longer (40 minutes as opposed to high school’s 32), the intensity level higher and the competition fiercer.
“He’s kind of caught in between right now,” the high school coach said. “Playing to please and playing as himself. Once he figures that part out, you’re going to see another gear and another level.”
Arrigale expressed confidence that Green, like almost all of Calipari’s previous point guards at Kentucky, will adjust in time.
“He’s going to get better,” Arrigale said. “He’s a gym rat. He’s a hard worker, and doesn’t back down from a challenge.”
Harvard at Kentucky
3:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)