When it comes to addressing the slow starts in recent games, Kentucky is not dawdling.
That’s been Topic A at several meetings this week.
“What we’ve kind of been talking about,” said assistant coach Joel Justus, who substituted for John Calipari at a Thursday news conference. “We’ve talked about it as a group. We’ve talked about it as coaches. We’ve brought that to the players and said, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ We ask them. They’re the ones doing it, so you say, ‘Why?’”
No conclusions had been drawn in what Justus called an “open-ended discussion.”
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De’Aaron Fox could not specify a reason for the slow starts. Speaking of slow starts, Fox suggested the 8 a.m. meeting contributed to his fuzzy memory of what happened.
“I don’t remember what anybody really said because it was early Monday morning,” Fox said.
But Fox offered a possible fix, presumably starting with Saturday’s game at Texas A&M.
“We’ve just got to learn to play desperate for the whole 40 minutes,” he said. “We’ve been getting down and having to fight back. . . . I feel like if we’re playing desperate from the start, we don’t have to worry about 10-, 12-, 15-point leads that we have to cut into.”
On Senior Night on Tuesday, Vanderbilt scored the game’s first seven points. Kentucky’s deficit grew to as much as 25-6 with less than eight minutes left in the first half.
The hole UK dug for itself last weekend against Florida was not as deep. Florida scored the first eight points and extended its early lead to 18-6.
After Senior Night, Dominique Hawkins suggested the players can veer from the plan early in games. This led to questions about whether the players were listening.
“Don’t think it has that much to do with them listening to the coaches,” Isaac Humphries said of the slow starts recently. “Because we all listen. We all focus. Something’s just not there, and that’s what we have to figure out. That’s what we’ll be working on today.”
Fox echoed the sentiment.
“Sometimes players think they have a better feel for the game because you’re out there,’ he said. “Other times, you realize the coach is right.”
Justus likened the variance from the plan early in games to a young person testing boundaries.
“I’m not sure, from our standpoint, it’s blatant disregard of what the staff is saying or what Coach Cal is saying,” Justus said. “I think they’re young guys, and I think for the most part they’re . . . going to push the envelope to see, ‘OK, what can I get away with.’ Then it’s, ‘that didn’t work.’”
Although Kentucky won both games, the slow starts caught the attention of the coaches.
That’s because of what might happen if there’s a repeat in the NCAA Tournament. The anxiety level caused by a sizable deficit — what Justus called “a sense of oh-my-gosh” — could be greater in a single-elimination tournament and cause a downward spiral.
The alarm of “this might be it” can cause disarray in the NCAA Tournament, Justus said. “Whereas right now, you’re able to play and know, OK, it’s a big game if we win. But if we lose, you still move on and you learn from it.”
Of course, a loss in the NCAA Tournament means the season ends. And almost by definition, a comeback in the NCAA Tournament is harder to achieve because of the higher quality of opposition.
“You have a bad start and you’re playing against a champion from a smaller conference, you’re playing a champion from a larger conference, a team that’s been in big games and knows how to hold a lead and close a game out,” Justus said.
Justus pointed out that Kentucky coaches had worked with UK players about how to be more aware of time-and-score considerations.
“Similar to what we’ve talked about,” he said of how opponents may be more prudent when leading Kentucky in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. “When we get up double digits, how do we play?”
Hence, the team meeting and the coaches’ meeting.
When asked about UK’s recent slow starts and fast finishes, Justus quipped, “I like the fast finishes better than the slow starts.”
No. 9 Kentucky at Texas A&M
Noon Saturday (CBS-27)