How can Kentucky improve its three-point defense?
Sarcasm. Puzzlement. Optimism. Concession.
All played a part in John Calipari’s assessment of Kentucky’s team four games into the 2018-19 season.
Wednesday afternoon’s opponent inspired the sarcasm. Winthrop (2-2) averages 10.3 three-point baskets per game. This surely is an attention grabber after VMI’s 18 three-pointers on Sunday was a record by a Kentucky opponent.
After acknowledging Winthrop’s reliance on three-pointers (41.2 percent of the Eagles’ shots come from beyond the arc), Calipari said, “We’ve really guarded the three pretty well so far this year.”
That was the sarcasm. The first four opponents have made 43.3 percent of their three-point shots, which if maintained would be record accuracy against any UK team.
Calipari spoke of defenders contesting shots with a hand up and rotating to a shooter.
“When you’re a high school player, you’re just worried (about) where your man is ...,” he said. “Now, to get them to see the ball and then anticipate what is coming next. The second part of that is trust. If I anticipate what’s going to happen, I have to trust someone has my man if I leave.
“We are not anticipating, and we don’t trust.”
Reid Travis suggested that it not be forgotten that there were two teams on the Rupp Arena court last weekend. VMI’s players shot well.
“They made some great shots, some nice contested shots,” Travis said.
Of course, that began with Bubba Parham, who made 10 of 16 three-point shots. When a reporter noted the distance on some of Parham’s threes, Travis said, “Those are shots generally you want teams to take. You’d probably have success if they’re doing that.”
Calipari expressed puzzlement about Kentucky’s own 32.8-percent shooting on threes. Only twice has a UK team had a poorer accuracy: 31.7 percent in 2001-02 and 29.2 percent in 1999-2000.
“This team should be a good shooting team,” Calipari said. “I just don’t understand why we got a couple guys that aren’t making shots.”
Calipari did not name the two guys. A guess would be Immanuel Quickley (2-for-11 on threes) and Tyler Herro (3-for-13).
The calendar seemed to inspire optimism. After all, Thanksgiving has not arrived in a season that ends after April Fool’s Day.
“They’re going to get it,” Calipari said of his players. “You try to push it along. But they’re going to get it on their terms. ...
“This team should be a great defensive team, a great rebounding team, a great post-up team that can shoot threes. That’s ... my vision of this team.”
A pointed question about whether Kentucky has a difference-maker on a roster deep with contributing players sparked a concession. Calipari all but said UK does not have a standout player like John Wall, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns.
More than once earlier this season, Calipari has conceded this point. He has repeatedly called for the emergence of a catalyst who can change the tenor of games. Later, he said Duke did not need to run plays, but simply clear space for a player like Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish or RJ Barrett to make a play. By contrast, he said, Kentucky players needed X-and-O help.
Calipari recalled how few saw Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as such a player at this time last season. Then Gilgeous-Alexander’s play all but dictated how Kentucky would perform.
“My hope is that’s what will happen with this group ...,” Calipari said. “It’s a consistency now, too. Like you can’t just be that (guy) every third game.”
Calipari seemed to suggest it’s ideal if that player is a point guard, but that lead pony can play other positions.
“We’ve done it all kind of different ways. ...,” he said.
Calipari’s mixed review of Kentucky’s first few performances continued to almost the very end of a 12-minute news conference.
“They’ll be as good as they want to be,” he said in a relative upbeat, if somewhat guarded tone. “And if they keep growing and getting better and have good attitudes, and they really do ...”
At this point, it appeared a sobering thought came to mind. Because Calipari then said, “We’ve thrown a tough schedule at them.”
Winthrop at No. 10 Kentucky
When: 1 p.m.
What: Ohio Valley Hardwood Showcase
Records: Winthrop 2-2; UK 3-1
Series: UK leads 2-0
Last meeting: UK won 89-52 on Dec. 22, 2010, in Rupp Arena
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-630; WBUL-98.1