UK Men's Basketball

Calipari pushing Cats to rev up fast break

Kentucky forward Alex Poythress dunked over Mississippi State guard Jacoby Davis in the second half Wednesday as No. 14 Kentucky defeated Mississippi State, 85-63. Poythress finished with 12 points.
Kentucky forward Alex Poythress dunked over Mississippi State guard Jacoby Davis in the second half Wednesday as No. 14 Kentucky defeated Mississippi State, 85-63. Poythress finished with 12 points. Herald-Leader

To borrow from 1960s-era film director Russ Meyer, Kentucky's preferred basketball style could be described as, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

That memorable title of Meyer's mostly forgotten 1965 exploitation film captures what UK coaches want to see on the court: the Cats pushing the pace and running over the opposition.

"That's the first thing we do in practice," Dominique Hawkins said. "We do scripted transition things. We push the ball and see how fast we can score."

To understand what UK Coach John Calipari has in mind, think the second half against Mississippi State on Wednesday. Not the first half. UK had only two transition points in falling behind 40-37 at halftime. The second half saw several crowd-pleasing — and coach-pleasing — dunks that punctuated fast breaks. Those plays helped Kentucky discourage and then defeat Mississippi State 85-63.

The attempt at be-quick-but-don't-hurry, as John Wooden liked to say, was not perfect.

"Maybe some forced turnovers trying to hit ahead," said assistant coach John Robic, who substituted for Calipari in the post-game news conference. "But we've got to play faster.

"Andrew (Harrison) is great doing that in practice. Sometimes, he just throws it, not looking where he throws it to see (if a teammate can catch up to the pass)."

James Young, who led UK with 26 points, said fans should expect more of the same going forward. Kentucky next plays Saturday at Vanderbilt. At Arkansas next week, it will be incumbent on Kentucky to be in attack mode and make the Hogs pay a price for their signature pressure defense.

"That's what we're going to be playing a lot more of now," Young said. "Transition. One dribble. Pass it up. Just push it as fast as we can, and get everybody running."

Hawkins noted how well-suited Kentucky's roster is to a faster pace. As seven McDonald's All-Americans suggest, the Cats have plenty of athleticism.

"He knows we have talented players who can score the ball," Hawkins said of Calipari's desire for a faster pace. "Everybody on the team has speed.

"Plus, if you miss a layup, we've got 'bigs' who will put it back in."

Calipari noted how Kentucky — or any team — could use some "free baskets." That is to say baskets that don't require half-court execution and sweat. Blocked shots, a staple of UK's style, can fuel fast breaks. So can steals, which Calipari seemed to encourage (traditionally he's eschewed steals in favor of good defensive position that keeps opponents on the perimeter or invites them to challenge a shot-blocker around the basket).

Ever the coach seeking more, Calipari noted how Mississippi State outscored Kentucky 16-10 in fast-break points. In its three losses, UK was outscored 49-6 in fast-break points. Overall this season, the opposition has outscored the Cats 114-102 in fast-break points.

Perhaps that's why Calipari said the day after the dunk-fest against State, "We've got a ways to go."

Willie Cauley-Stein, a big man who can beat his opposite number downcourt in transition, welcomed the emphasis on what he called "easy buckets" that come on the fast break.

"You don't have to worry about running a set in the half-court," he said. "At least 20 points (per game) should be in transition buckets."

When asked why an athletically gifted team like Kentucky needs encouragement to pick up the pace, Cauley-Stein said, "I have no idea. Habits, I guess."

Of course, the opponents like to score in transition, too. Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray said he went into the game looking to exploit UK's transition defense.

"If you get stops, I thought they struggled a little bit in transition defense," he said. "That's not a secret. Coach Calipari knows that, and that's something I'm sure they worked on these last 10 days."

Robic confirmed as much. He cited "poor transition defense" as a problem against Mississippi State.

"Sometimes guys run to their man instead of picking up the ball," he said. "... It's inexcusable, really. In any other game, that can be a key."

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