One question hovering over Wednesday night’s game against Valparaiso is how will Kentucky react to its first loss of the season?
Ideally, the Wildcats hope to be very defensive (in the good sense of the word).
UK wants to turn up the defensive intensity after UCLA made 53 percent of its shots in winning 97-92 in Rupp Arena on Saturday.
“My team scored 92 points and created 18 turnovers … and only turned it over nine times,” UK Coach John Calipari said of the loss to UCLA. With those numbers, “you’d say you won by 25.”
But UCLA nullified that good work by shooting so well and scoring so much. Freshman forward TJ Leaf led the way with 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.
“That was a defensive issue,” Calipari said in summing up the loss. “Our matchup with Leaf was just a bad matchup, and he took advantage.”
Leaf was matched up with either senior Derek Willis or freshman Wenyen Gabriel. Even before the UCLA game, Calipari had singled out the Willis/Gabriel forward position as needing better defense.
Gabriel pleaded guilty.
“Last game I had a few lapses that cost me some minutes,” he said.
“We’ve been allowing too many straight-line drives,” Gabriel said. “Too many lapses, in general, at that position.”
With that, Gabriel added an optimistic note. “I’m certain I’m going to fix that before the season is over,” he said.
Gabriel’s slender physique can be a problem, but his willingness to defend is unquestioned, Calipari said.
“He’s the greatest kid,” the UK coach said. “He’s trying. He’s trying. No one can question his fight (or) his motor. He’s going after balls. He had five offensive rebounds (against UCLA). He fought.”
Of more immediate concern is Valparaiso. The Crusaders are led by senior forward Alec Peters, the nation’s second-leading scorer (25.4 ppg). He is an accurate shooter to three-point range (although he’s made only 23.4 percent of his shots from beyond the arc so far this season) and gets to the foul line (nine free throws per game, on average), where he shoots with 94.4-percent accuracy.
Calipari spoke of Peters’ ability to foil defenses with a fade-away shot. “So even if you guard him and do a good job, he still scores,” the UK coach said.
“Other than that, he’s just another guy,” Calipari added sarcastically.
When asked how he’d like to see Gabriel and Willis start to improve defensively, Calipari went back to the basics.
“Like try to stay in front of the guy,” he said. “When he drives, just be somewhere in the vicinity of in front of him so he’s not driving and shooting a straight-line defense.
“That’s the very first thing.”
Calipari second-guessed himself for getting away from defensive basics because he said he overestimated the players’ abilities this early in the season.
“Any time I’ve ever thought that about any team … , this happens,” Calipari said. “You take a ‘L.’ Then you go back (and say), ‘OK, how do we do this?’ Sometimes you take two ‘Ls’ to get them back to where they need to be.”
Calipari’s tone suggested he was not underestimating the challenge presented by Valpo, which brings a 7-1 record and victories over then-No. 21 Rhode Island and Alabama to Rupp Arena. The Crusaders’ top six players in minutes played are three seniors, a fourth-year junior and two juniors.
“Extremely hard game for us to win … ,” Calipari said. The Crusaders are “very, very skilled. Very in tune with each other. They are a terrific team. A team.”
In taking the long view, Calipari and Kentucky players spoke confidently of restoring the defensive prowess and making the UCLA game an aberration.
“It’s just a time thing … ,” Isaac Humphries said. “It’ll come.”
Valparaiso at No. 6 Kentucky
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Records: Valparaiso 7-1; UK 7-1
Series: UK leads 1-0
Last meeting: UK won 83-68 in the first round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1