UK Men's Basketball

Calipari says Cats starting from scratch defensively

The question brimmed with optimism about a bright future this coming season. The answer dripped with wit from the fertile mind of Kentucky Coach John Calipari.

Might versatile freshman Alex Poythress create mismatches at either power forward or small forward?

"The way he's playing defense, it's a real mismatch for us," Calipari quipped. "It's a real problem."

Calipari used Wednesday's news conference to continue a familiar theme this pre-season: However talented Kentucky figures to be this season, there is plenty of improvement that must occur. An opponent with experience — for instance, Northwood in Thursday's exhibition game — will be capable of exploiting the Cats' inattention to detail.

"Weakness or things we're not doing well will be glaring," Calipari said.

While noting his own optimism about how well this Kentucky team can play given time, Calipari bluntly spoke of the Cats' inadequate ability to play defense at this stage.

"We just have a long way to go," he said. "We're just awful right now.

"We don't stay in front of anybody. We've got guys stopping left and right, and think it's OK. Or, 'It wasn't my man' and stuff like that."

UK players made available to reporters Wednesday echoed a comment made by Calipari at the Southeastern Conference Media Day: While UK's tall timber might make for an effective zone defense, do not expect the Cats to play anything besides man-to-man.

Julius Mays, the transfer from Wright State, noted how UK's attention to defense since last week's Blue-White Game involved next to no work on a zone.

"I wouldn't even say we practiced it," Mays said of a brief usage of a 2-3 zone. "We came out of it after one possession."

For the first time at UK, Calipari does not have much veteran presence to use as a foundation to help install a defense. He hinted at a loss — perhaps in the opening two games against well-established programs like Maryland and Duke — serving as a teaching tool.

"It's kind of scary," he said. "I know you'll say us getting dinged is not the worst thing. ... you have to create habits. You don't have them right now."

Calipari spoke of Northwood, which reached the NAIA Division II national championship game last season and is coached by Rollie Massimino, as a team that knows how to play basketball. The Seahawks, who are based in West Palm Beach, Fla., led 16-12 more than seven minutes into an exhibition game at Michigan State on Tuesday night before losing 85-57.

Calipari predicted that Northwood would execute such basketball fundamentals as boxing out, offensive rebounding and playing hard until the whistle blows.

"All those things will come to light in this thing," the UK coach said. "You're going to say, 'He (a UK player) just turned his head and a guy (an opponent) dunked on him. If you watch our tape, there are many of those right now."

With the regular season not beginning until Nov. 9, Kentucky continues to experiment and assess.

"Tons of lineups," said sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, who ventured to add that Kentucky "might be a little ahead" of where it was at this stage last year.

"I think he's happy where we're at," Wiltjer said of Calipari. Then the player quickly added, "Never satisfied."

Calipari said fans will see the much-discussed twin towers alignment during the exhibition against Northwood. He lauded how well Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein communicate when on the court together.

"That's what you want" from all players, the UK coach said.

Calipari offered a simple approach on defense; Keep a big man near the basket and want the perimeter defenders to force drives toward the shot-blocker.

"How's that for genius basketball?" Calipari quipped.

The UK coach said that such players as Noel, Cauley-Stein, Poythress, Wiltjer and Archie Goodwin can touch the top of the square over the basket.

"So why wouldn't we bring people to us?" said Calipari, who then explained his philosophy on blocked shots. "You don't want to block your own man's shot. You try to block your teammates' (man's) shot."

Calipari eschewed the notion that patience be the guiding principle for Kentucky's latest freshman-dependent team.

"I think it's more hard work than patience," he said. "More of a focus on what you've got to do than patience. ...

"One guy that has to have patience is me. And that will only go so far with me."

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