UK Men's Basketball

Cats stretching defenses with hot shooting

Kentucky is on pace to enjoy its best shooting accuracy in more than 20 years. So much for the pre-season view that shooting would be a big concern for UK.

Jodie Meeks' entry in the 2009 NBA Draft fed the perception that shooting would be a problem. He set a school record with 117 three-point baskets last season.

With holdover players having made only 28.1 percent of their three-point shots last season, new UK Coach John Calipari braced for a lot collapsing zone defenses from opponents.

Now, he welcomes the thought, ever more so after Kentucky's sharpshooting in Tuesday's 104-61 victory over Hartford. The Cats made 14 three-pointers (the most by a UK team since hitting 16 against Tulane on Jan. 2, 2002).

"It's nice," Calipari said after the Hartford game. "You say we'll give you the three-point shot a la North Carolina. It's dangerous. If we make it, we'll blow you out of the gym."

By shooting up Hartford's zone, Kentucky improved its accuracy this season to 50.5 percent overall and 42.2 percent from three-point range. The former is on pace to be UK's best since 1985-86 (51.4 percent) and the latter would surpass the program's best accuracy in the three-point era (39.7 percent in 1995-96).

"The reason we're shooting such a high percentage is we're making easy plays," Calipari said. "My biggest thing is just make easy plays. Don't try to make hero plays."

Hartford Coach Dan Leibovitz did not say he expected the zone to expose a Kentucky weakness.

"They're capable," he said. "We said, (Darnell) Dodson's a guy. (Darius) Miller is a guy. (Patrick) Patterson shoots well from three.

"They're not non-shooters."

Dodson (6-for-10) and Miller (4-for-6) set career highs for three-point baskets.

Afterward, Dodson noted the importance of good perimeter shooting.

"It's going to help stretch the defense out and create more opportunities to get to the basket," he said. "Or throwing the ball inside to the post and letting them be able to score easy baskets."

Leibovitz was simply following the example of most UK opponents by playing a zone defense. His team's lack of size made it even more of a priority to avoid trying to match up with the Cats in a man-to-man.

Kentucky carved up Hartford's zone. Point guard John Wall, who set a school record with 16 assists, repeatedly penetrated and fed lobs for dunks or passed to wide-open teammates on the perimeter.

"They'll see bigger zones, and I think they'll see a lot of zones," the Hartford coach said. "But I thought they attacked it pretty well. It was clear they'd worked on it."

For those who wonder if the good shooting is a product of the schedule (according to collegerpi.com, UK's strength of schedule is a pedestrian 101), here's a statistic to ponder: Against the four opponents with a Ratings Percentage Index in the top 100 (Connecticut, Long Beach State, North Carolina and Austin Peay), Kentucky has made 44.7 percent of its shots (38.9 percent from three-point range).

But, no doubt, the Cats have had plenty of opportunity to practice against zone defenses in games.

Calipari gushed about how well Kentucky penetrated the Hartford zone.

"I thought it was terrific," he said. "We've made great strides. We talked for two days (about) here's what we're looking to do and here's what we're trying to do. We added a few wrinkles and they executed."

To explain the good shooting, Wall cited old-fashioned work. The doubts of pre-season got the Cats into the gym.

"We took it as a challenge," he said. "We can't come out there and take crazy shots. But like coach said, if you're open, you've got to take it."

Wall, himself, came to UK billed as a poor shooter.

"It was the biggest knock" on his game, he said. "I know I can go to the gym any time I want to. That's what I've been working on."

Going into Saturday's annual showdown with Louisville, Wall has made 52.1 percent of his shots. He's made 43.3 percent of his three-point attempts.

If U of L Coach Rick Pitino continues his pattern, he'll collapse defenders around low-post scorers like DeMarcus Cousins and Patterson. That will put the onus on the perimeter shooters.

Kentucky's best weapon — Wall in transition — serves as a remedy. His high-speed drives cause the defense to react or surrender an easy two points. That leaves teammates standing alone on the perimeter.

"The threes are like a turkey shoot," Calipari said. "They're wide open. There are games we miss those. But there's no one near them. They're shooting without a hand in their face. We have good enough shooters to make those wide-open threes."

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