UK Men's Basketball

Despite lack of defensive stopper, Calipari not eager to have Cats play more zone

Texas A&M Aggies guard Elston Turner (31) put in  two of his 40 points as Kentucky played Texas A&M on Saturday January 12, 2013 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Texas A&M Aggies guard Elston Turner (31) put in two of his 40 points as Kentucky played Texas A&M on Saturday January 12, 2013 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

To paraphrase Rick Pitino during his ill-fated days as Boston Celtics coach, DeAndre Liggins is not walking through that door. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is not walking through that door.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari updated that famous reality check Monday when he said that this season's UK team had no alternative to dependence on total team effort.

"This team doesn't have a stopper that other (UK) teams have had," Calipari said. Someone the coach can order "to just go guard somebody," he added.

The absence of a Liggins or Kidd-Gilchrist became abundantly clear last weekend when Elston Turner scored 40 points to lead Texas A&M to an 83-71 victory over Kentucky.

Turner became only the fourth player in the history of Rupp Arena to score 40 or more points. More to the point, he became the latest in a growing line of opposing players that Kentucky struggled to contain.

For instance, Vanderbilt's Kedren Johnson (18 points) and Louisville's Russ Smith (21 points) exceeded their scoring averages against the Cats. So did Duke's Seth Curry (23 points) and Morehead State's Milton Chavis (23 points).

Curry, Smith and Turner controlled the game and made the plays that beat Kentucky. So did two other perimeter players: Notre Dame's Eric Atkins and Baylor's Pierre Jackson.

"You don't have the guy that just says, 'Let me guard him,'" Calipari said. "The emotional guy (that says), 'Let's go! Let's stop this! That's enough!'"

When asked what traits Liggins and Kidd-Gilchrist shared as stoppers, Calipari answered quickly.

"Took pride in it," he said. "They took pride in it. They just said, it's not acceptable. ... Both of those guys have driven that trait to the NBA."

Calipari acknowledged the difficult transition from taking bows as a high school star to doing the grunt work as a college player.

"Shooting all the balls, going at your pace, I'm tired and I'm not going to go hard (because) there's no sub for me," the UK coach said of high school stardom. "It's a process."

Going forward, beginning with the game against Tennessee on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, Kentucky still looks for a stopper. Calipari said he'd maybe try Archie Goodwin, who took a turn against Turner. "See if he can do it," the UK coach said with a noticeable wait-and-see tone.

There's always the option of playing zone, which Kentucky tried for a few possessions against Texas A&M. More zone in that game than any other in his four seasons as UK coach, Calipari said.

"Maybe that's something we go to," he said. The Cats have spent more practice time on zone defense the last two weeks than all of his other college teams combined, Calipari said.

The UK coach sounded conflicted. Perhaps zone is the best option for this UK team. But he fiercely (stubbornly?) believes in man-to-man, which he's used to great success.

"The whole thing is how do I put these guys in the best position to win?" Calipari said. "How do we develop a trust?"

A zone connotes a more passive approach, which sounds an alarm for a UK team repeatedly ordered by Calipari to play with more zeal and passion.

A Kentucky zone would be active, the UK coach said.

"I hate zone," Calipari said, who offered an ideal formula as "good man-to-man" with some zone "sprinkled in."

"We won a lot of games, a lot of league championships, a lot of league tournament championships, a lot of NCAA games playing man-to-man. So I know that's the best way to do it."

Any effective defense requires a coordinated and spirited effort.

That was Calipari's theme going forward. The Cats need to "buy in," to use sporting parlance, and trust in each other.

"You have to be able to say, 'How do you want me to play? And that's how I'm going to play,'" Calipari said in suggesting how players should think. "What's my job when I play defense?"

Not for the first time, Calipari noted that this season's heralded freshmen don't have veteran players to "mimic."

Calipari saw progress in the loss to Texas A&M. UK had only 11 turnovers (two relatively meaningless in the final few minutes). Good free-throw shooting (77.3 percent).

Looking what passes for long term (two months), Calipari added, "My vision is no one late wants to play this team, if we get it right.

"Right now, it appears everybody wants to play this team."

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