With Southeastern Conference play about to begin, Kentucky has been preparing for the possibility of slower, possession-by-possession games. You could say UK has been taking half measures in trying to improve.
“We’ve been working on stuff in the half-court,” Mychal Mulder said Wednesday. “If we don’t get (points) in transition, what do we do?”
Of course, Kentucky’s signature weapon this season has been its speed. UK possessions have averaged 13.9 seconds (seventh-fastest in the country). The Cats’ average of 93.1 points ranks fourth nationally.
SEC opponents have taken notice. Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy, whose team plays host to Kentucky in Thursday’s league opener, said that this might be the fastest UK team he’s seen. He spoke of limiting turnovers — a concern for Ole Miss in earlier games — as a way of lessening the impact of Kentucky’s transition offense.
“A lot of teams, they’re going to want to slow us down,” Mulder said. He said the “main game plan” would be to “slow us down.”
UK Coach John Calipari has the necessary components to play a half-court game: perimeter shooting, ability to drive to the basket, a post-up man in Bam Adebayo.
“There’s no reason we can’t be good in the half court,” he said.
More than once, Calipari reminded reporters of the irony of coaching a freshman-dependent team: It takes time to learn to play at a slower pace.
“This is a great group of kids,” he said. “it’s just that we’re really, really young. I remember the end of years. I don’t remember the grind of it. Like I forget how hard some of this stuff is: Playing all these young guys.”
Calipari stressed the need for Kentucky (10-2) to continue to improve its shot selection and decision-making involving score and time.
“The biggest thing is, with 25 seconds left on the shot clock, a good shot is different than when there’s seven seconds,” he said. “With three minutes left in a close game, what’s a good shot is a little different than 15 minutes (left) in the flow of the game. That’s what they don’t understand yet.”
Time-and-score elements also come into play on defense, Calipari said.
To help the players understand, Kentucky has been scrimmaging more in recent practices, Calipari said. The scrimmages include “situational work” in which time-and-score components are arbitrarily set.
More than once after Kentucky lost at archrival Louisville last week, Calipari cited a lack of discipline as a key factor.
“I’ve been a little tougher in practices as far as holding them accountable,” he said. “Making it clear what we look for. . . .
“We have a good team. We have to get a couple guys to catch up. We’ve got a couple guys who have to get better. I’ve kept it real the last couple days.”
Calipari did not name the two players. But he did say, as if speaking to the two players, “A couple of you should kiss me for playing you because you should not even get in the game. . . . You should say, ‘I love this guy because he puts me in the game because I know I should not be getting in.’
“The reality of it is if they can’t do what’s asked of them, they shouldn’t be on the court. It’s so simple.”
Calipari mentioned the date of the game at Ole Miss as significant. The game will measure how far along the developmental curve Kentucky is in late December.
Of course, the outsized importance attached to Kentucky basketball works against big-picture thinking.
“You either win or there’s death,” Calipari said. “That’s the way it is here. You have to deal with it.
“I can’t get caught on the highs and lows. There’s a process we always go through. I have to remind myself of that sometimes.”
No. 8 Kentucky at Mississippi
When: 8 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 10-2, Mississippi 9-3
Series: Kentucky leads 104-13
Last meeting: Kentucky won 83-61 on Jan. 2, 2016, in Lexington.