UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Even a team with UK's talent has to play defense

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari as the University of Kentucky played the University of Buffalo in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Sunday, November 16, 2014. This is second half college basketball action. UK won 71-52. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari as the University of Kentucky played the University of Buffalo in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Sunday, November 16, 2014. This is second half college basketball action. UK won 71-52. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

Gush all you want about the glitz, glamour and talent, at the end of 40 minutes this Kentucky basketball team is no different than any other basketball team. It comes down to grit. It comes down to defense.

Sunday afternoon, with a noon start at Rupp Arena, Kentucky got all half-hearted on the defensive end and by halftime, Bobby Hurley and the Buffalo Bulls led the nation's No. 1-ranked team, the team some consider the most talented in the history of college basketball, by five points.

Second half, Kentucky went from middling to menacing. Energy spiked. Turnovers were forced. Shots were contested. By completion of the second 20 minutes, Buffalo had made just four of 19 shots and scored 14 points. Kentucky had won 71-52.

It's really just that simple.

"For us," John "This Is Just What We Needed" Calipari said afterward, "this was a great game."

Friday, when previewing the official start of the season, Calipari said sometimes teams are too good, too early, that a December team is not always a March team. So, he was asked, which area might the Cats be just OK in now, but much better late?

"Defense," he said.

Offense wins fans, defense wins titles. Or something like that. As much firepower as Kentucky possesses offensively, the Cats boast the necessary tools to be an effective defense. They are tall, long and athletic.

They are not particularly quick, however. That was a problem last season and there doesn't appear to be a tremendous amount of improvement in that area this time around. True, what Tyler Ulis lacks in height, he makes up for in darting ability. He is the exception not the rule.

"When (Buffalo) came in, with their game plan, was drive the ball, something we had worked on a little bit (Saturday)," Calipari said Sunday. "That's something we're going to have to get better at so we can keep people in front of us."

In its long line of 7-footers, Kentucky has erasers. The Cats blocked 10 shots against Grand Canyon on Friday night. They blocked 10 more against the Bulls on Saturday. Good defense, however, is not all about scrubbing out mistakes. It's about not making those mistakes in the first place.

Mainly, defense requires sweat equity. For whatever reason, Kentucky began the game as if out for a Sunday stroll. Buffalo countered with urgency. No sooner had the fans completed booing Hurley, the former Duke point guard, than the visitors had hit four of seven three-pointers and committed seven turnovers to Kentucky's 10.

"We came out lazy and we didn't play well," said Ulis, the freshman guard. "We had to lock down on defense and get a little more energy."

Why the lack of energy?

"I have no idea," Ulis said. "It's just something that we've got to get together and not do."

Second half, different half. Right off the bat, Trey Lyles (who is going to be very good, by the way) nailed a three-pointer. Then, full-court pressing, Kentucky forced a turnover in the backcourt that led to a Lyles slam. A 38-33 Buffalo lead turned into a 38-38 tie in just 41 seconds.

After Buffalo took a 45-43 lead with 14:22 remaining, Kentucky embarked on a 16-2 run to snatch control of the proceedings. Buffalo scored just one field goal in the game's final 10:42. That came on a bucket with three seconds remaining.

"It seemed like our shots in the second half were a lot more contested," said Hurley. "And more difficult to find."

There is your formula for success, especially with Kansas on tap for the Cats on Tuesday night in Indianapolis. And don't think this is just a no-pressure early-season game.

Why on his post-game radio show Sunday, Calipari made a puzzling reference to fan criticism concerning his platoons, mimicking some by saying "We should have Rick (Pitino) back."

Who knows what Calipari is thinking with that remark, but after Sunday we do know one thing: Even an outrageously talented team like Kentucky still has to play defense.

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