As role reversals go, it wasn’t as startling as Santa Claus and the Grinch switching places. But it surely had a did-he-really-say-that quality.
After an 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall on Saturday, John Calipari put a priority on improving Kentucky’s offense.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to be better offensively than we were,” he said. He added that he and his staff had to “look at how we do that.”
This from the same Kentucky coach who had repeatedly stressed defense as the key to his team’s destiny this season. The same man who repeatedly dismissed offense as something UK could all but take for granted.
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During his radio show of Nov. 26, Calipari said of UK’s early-season struggles, “It’s nothing to do with offense. . . . What’s hurt us is our defense.”
A week later, he told listeners of his radio show, “This season will continue to play out defensively. The way we rebound the ball, if we can continue to defend, we’ll have a chance to win every single game we play.”
Before Kentucky played Monmouth, Calipari said, “The issue is not what’s happening offensively. It has nothing to do with our offense. . . . We’re scoring enough.” He acknowledged that “we need to shoot it better.” But again, he suggested defense was a magic wand. Better defending would lead to more confident play and more productive scoring, he said.
During a preseason round-table meeting with reporters, Calipari said he told the players, “if we’re good, it’s only because we’re outstanding defensively.”
Less than 48 hours before UK played Seton Hall, Calipari seemed to sound a bottom-line note. “At the end of the day, if we are a defense-driven team, we are going to be pretty good,” he said. “If we’re not, we’re not going to be very good.”
Then the Seton Hall game showed that smothering defense, at least for a half, can be nullified if accompanied by ineffective offense. Seton Hall made only a third of its shots in the first half (seven of 21), yet Kentucky led by only six points at intermission. Why? UK made only 31 percent of its shots in the first half (nine of 29).
“If you fought and you defend like we did in the first half, our team is going to be fine,” Calipari said before straying from what had become a familiar script. “We missed a lot of shots that we just can’t afford to miss. . . . I have a lot to figure out offensively. We played such great defense . . . . We couldn’t get baskets. . . . With the way, we played defensively, we should have been up a good number.”
Kentucky made only five of 20 three-point shots against Seton Hall. That marked UK’s worst accuracy since making only 23.5 percent of its three-point shots in the opening-night blowout loss to Duke (four of 17).
On his radio show the previous Monday, Calipari continued to insist that Kentucky has good shooters. “I’ve told you this should be the best three-point shooting team I’ve had here,” he said.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas seemed to agree. Before the opening game against Duke, he said, “the difference in Kentucky’s team this year is they can really shoot it at multiple positions, and that’s not always been true of Kentucky in the past.”
In theory, the idea is to use Reid Travis and PJ Washington as low-post scorers, forcing defenses to double team, and then have Travis and Washington pass out to wide-open teammates on the perimeter. That’s exactly what happened against Seton Hall as Washington’s play around the basket got the Pirates’ “bigs” in foul trouble. Seton Hall double-teamed Washington much of the second half and overtime. But in that time, UK made two of 10 three-point shots.
“It came down to making shots,” Washington said after the game. “Being able to make shots and having confidence on both ends of the floor.”
Another recurring problem is ball-handling and decision-making. Through nine games, Kentucky has more turnovers (137) than assists (127). Only five times since the 1979-80 season has a UK team finished a season with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.
Rebounding has limited the fallout from poor shooting and ball-handling. After Saturday’s game, Kentucky ranked first nationally in rebound margin (plus 15.3) and had, on average, rebounded nearly half its missed shots: 28.9 misses per game, 13.89 offensive rebounds per game.
After UK beat Tennessee State on Nov. 23, Travis summed up Kentucky’s approach to the season. “The biggest thing coach has been preaching (is) forget about your offense . . . ,” he said. That’s going to work itself out. Really focus on defense.”
From what Calipari said after the loss to Seton Hall, some of the focus will shift to offense.
Utah at Kentucky
When: Saturday, 5 p.m.