Reporters needed to bring a Thesaurus to John Calipari’s news conference Monday.
When the subject turned to Kentucky’s on-ball defense, Calipari asked for synonyms for the word “bad.”
The word “terrible” came to mind. “No,” the UK coach said, “Beyond that.”
How about “atrocious?” a reporter suggested. “Putrid” also got nominated. “Keep going,” Calipari said.
Before we got to “dreadful” or “crappy” or “abominable,” Calipari explained why it was important to identify on-ball defense as a problem as a first step toward alleviating the problem.
“We’re just getting beat on the dribble by everybody,” he said. “And defense starts on the ball. It always has. And if you can’t guard the ball, it’s hard to (win).”
Calipari reminded reporters that he had to remove Quade Green from Sunday’s victory because Vermont point guard Trae Bell-Haynes, the preseason choice to be the America East Conference Player of the Year, got to the rim again and again.
Calipari said it was like when he coached Keith Van Horn with the then-New Jersey Nets. Van Horn asked for advice for an upcoming matchup with Karl Malone.
“Whoo,” Calipari recalled saying. “He’s probably going to get 35 on you. Try to get 40 on him.”
It’s not just Green, Calipari said. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox were among other players beaten off the dribble.
“If you’re going to get beat, get beat letting them shoot a tough two,” Calipari said. “You can’t give them layups or wide-open threes. Those two things kill your team.”
Now comes Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham, the preseason choice to be the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. Graham, a 41 percent three-point shooter, makes enough outside shots to force the defender to guard him closely, Calipari said. This makes it easier for Graham to go around the defender on the drive.
“He’s the one that stirs their coffee,” Calipari said of Graham. “He’s the guy. He’s the one that creates. All that’s being created out there is through him.”
So, never mind the basketball staples of pick-and-roll or give-and-go. Kentucky goes to Chicago to play Kansas on Tuesday with an emphasis on trial-and-error and live-and-learn.
With a team of freshmen and largely untested sophomores, Kentucky’s season is a climb up a learning curve.
“It’s going to be a process,” Calipari said. “We have to be able to stay in front of people. We have enough shot-blocking (to help the on-ball defender) unless they’re shooting straight layups. Ain’t no one blocking that.”
The latest chapter in that learning process came in Sunday’s 73-69 victory over Vermont.
“I told the guys prior to last night, ‘You have to enjoy learning,’” Calipari said. “And what I’ve got to do is be tough on them in these practices. Then I’ve got to be as positive as I can be (in games).”
Down the stretch against Vermont, there were too many one-handed rebounds and one-handed catches, Calipari said. He attributed this to something that sounded like nonchalance, though not putting a high enough priority on detail and fundamentals sounds better.
“There’s no coolness,” he said, “because coolness leads to having no confidence. Because you’re cool (the result is) layup, layup, boom, foul, grab.”
While UK’s freshmen might not have fully grasped how Vermont could provide a test, Calipari said he did. Vermont returned four starters from a team that won 29 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season.
A veteran team with plenty of know-how and pluck, Vermont made Calipari wistful. He said the Catamounts reminded him of his upwardly mobile UMass teams of more than 20 years ago.
“I laughed when I walked off,” he said of the final buzzer Sunday. “I said, I miss those days, coaching juniors and seniors. … We’ve got a freshman team.
“We needed a close game but we didn’t need to lose it. We were awful down the stretch. That is what I show them on the tape.”
With that, and perhaps mindful of the need to deliver a do-better lecture to the players, Calipari left the podium with a purpose in his step. “I got to go,” he said over his shoulder.
No. 7 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Kansas
What: Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago
When: About 9:30 p.m. (Second game of a doubleheader that features No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State in the opener)
Records: UK 2-0, Kansas 1-0
Series: UK leads 22-8
Last meeting: UK won 79-73 in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge on Jan. 28, 2017, in Rupp Arena
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1