Historically, John Calipari has considered “zone” to be a four-letter word. But a switch to a zone defense helped Kentucky defeat Utah Valley 73-63 in Friday night’s season-opening game.
Trailing 34-25 at halftime, UK switched to a zone to start the second half. Utah Valley went scoreless for more than four minutes as the Cats went on an 18-0 run that caused an 180-degree change in momentum.
“At halftime I said, this is good for us,” Calipari said of the deficit. “Let’s see who we are. Let’s see who is willing to fight. We went zone and it kind of got us going. … That’s what we should use the zone for.”
Calipari acknowledged that he switched to a zone because his preferred man-to-man was not effective.
“We had too many guys that were just getting beat on the dribble,” he said. “Too many guys out of position. But that’s what happens when you have all freshmen and a couple sophomores.”
Utah Valley Coach Mark Pope, the former UK player, credited the zone as a key to the game.
“I’ll be honest, we haven’t spent a lot of time preparing zone yet,” he said. “It did what it was intended to do. It made us a little bit more passive and our guys don’t have a feel for it.”
Utah Valley nearly matched its eight first-half turnovers in the first 10 minutes of the second half. UK used those turnovers to fuel its fast break.
UK players don’t expect Calipari to switch to zone defense full-time.
“We’re still going to be a man (defense) team first,” Hamidou Diallo said. “We’re going to have to buy into defense, and we’re going to have to defend.”
‘Core Four’ alert
Point guard Trae Bell-Haynes was the American East Conference’s player of the year last season. Forward Anthony Lamb was the league’s rookie of the year and the early choice to be the top player this season. Ernie Duncan and Payton Henson both made one of the all-conference teams.
They make up what Vermont calls its “Core Four,” a four-headed reason Coach John Becker said his team will not be overwhelmed by the idea of playing at Kentucky on Sunday.
“Obviously, Purdue was a huge team …,” Becker said of Vermont’s competitive 80-70 loss against Purdue in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. “I think we’ll settle in (against UK) and it’ll be a good college basketball game.”
As for any awe about playing in Rupp Arena, Becker pointed out that one of his earlier Vermont teams played at Duke in 2014. Duke, which was led by Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood that season, won by one point.
“So our program has fared pretty decently in these kind of games,” he said. “We’ve also got handled by 20 points by some of these historic programs. I think our guys have been through a lot.”
Becker, who was the American East’s coach of the year last season, led Vermont to a 29-6 record. That marked the ninth straight season the Catamounts won 20 or more games.
The Core Four keyed the big season. “Those four guys are pretty good,” Becker said, “and could play at most places. They’re proven and they’re really good.”
Vermont has been picked to win the America East by Athlon, USA Today and Street & Smith.
Bell-Haynes is “kind of the heartbeat of our team,” Becker said. “He’s a competitor and a winner. That’s all he’s done since he’s gotten there.”
Bell-Haynes is from Toronto, Canada. He did not have a scholarship offer coming out of high school.
When asked how a conference player of the year could be so overlooked with the suffocating analysis associated with recruiting, Becker laughed. “That’s one of those things, man,” he said. “I don’t know. Recruiting is not an exact science. You got really lucky with him. You can’t measure a kid’s heart. That’s for sure.”
Lamb, whom Becker described as an undersized power forward (6-6, 227), scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Purdue, often matched up against star Caleb Swanigan (a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft).
Becker acknowledged the obvious: Sunday’s game features the storyline of UK youth against Vermont experience.
“We’re a huge underdog,” the Vermont coach said. “But we’ve got a pretty experienced team that’s used to winning. So we’ll see what happens.”
Wenyen Gabriel did not let poor shooting (three of 13) prevent him from making big contributions against Utah Valley. He had a 13 rebounds, three assists and equaled a career high of three blocks.
When asked if Gabriel could have not let poor shooting affect his overall performance last season, Calipari said, “No, no, no, no. When he went down that rabbit hole (last season), he was down there. Now he pops back up and he keeps playing. … The biggest thing is when I recruited him I recruited an energy guy. And then he became a perimeter shooter. Now you’re an energy guy, who happens to be able to shoot, too. Now he didn’t today, but that’s who he is.”
Because of his team being ultra-young, Calipari said he’s been much more upbeat during games this month. Not that Diallo has noticed. When asked to compare Calipari’s demeanor this season as opposed to last season, he said, “I honestly don’t know. I wasn’t that observant last year on how he was coaching.” … Playing at UK was a homecoming for Coach Mark Pope, who played on the Cats’ 1996 national championship team. Saturday night’s game at Duke is a homecoming for assistant coach Chris Burgess, once a high-profile recruit described as a mix of Bill Walton and Larry Bird.