UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky-Texas notes: If offense improves, defense will be even better, Calipari says

Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein cheered from the bench in the second half.
Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein cheered from the bench in the second half. Herald-Leader

It's not unusual for coaches to sell defensive effort as a means to get the ball and score. Kentucky Coach John Calipari is turning that approach on its head. He's selling better offense as a way to improve UK's already smothering defense.

"We haven't had a breakout offensive game yet," Calipari said Thursday. "I'm trying to emphasize to (UK's players) if you play better offense, it makes your defense even better because it puts more pressure on the other team to make baskets against a really good defense."

Calipari said Kentucky's offense is running at about 50- or 60-percent efficiency. UK's defense? "I'd guess 70- or 80-percent there," he said.

As is, Kentucky's offense hardly sputters. Despite playing against several opponents intent on slowing the pace and thus reducing scoring opportunities, UK ranked No. 29 nationally in points (79.0 per game) in the NCAA's most recent statistics. The Cats were No. 1 in margin (plus 34.4 points), No. 50 in shooting (47.7 percent), No. 20 in assists and No. 21 in assist-to-turnover ratio.

When asked how the offense can improve, Calipari said, "Harder cuts. Better screens. Better execution. Flying down the court so we can get some easy baskets."

UK is averaging 10.6 fast-break points per game.

'Engaged'

No. 6 Texas comes to town at a good time. A game pitting two top-10 teams should help John Calipari with his over-arching objective of keeping Kentucky's heralded players "engaged."

Meeting with the media Thursday, Calipari described UK's team as "smart," "driven" and "competitive." But ...

"My one thing is how do I keep them engaged," he said. "... Nothing would be better for us than having a team like Texas come in and hit us right in the mouth. We need to know when a team comes in here and scores the first eight times, 10 times down the floor, making tough shots and we're missing open shots, how do we respond? Are we still tough? Are we still having fun? Are we still playing together?"

Size vs. size

Texas, which matches UK's 7-0 record, will be the first opponent to look Kentucky in the eye. The Longhorns have similar size and presence around the basket.

Aaron Harrison suggested that UK's big men would like going against a team of equal size rather than a smaller and perhaps quicker opponent.

"It's better to play against guys your size because you can be more physical and you can battle more," he said.

Calipari was dubious. "I think we'd rather play against smaller guys," he said.

Platoons

Calipari said he tinkered with UK's platoons in hopes of improving production from individual players. Upon reflection, he decided to stay with the same five-man units.

"I messed around," he said. "I didn't like what I tried. So we're going to stick with where we are."

When asked if he changed the units as a means to motivate, Calipari said, "No. They're motivated.

"I'm good where we are."

'Look at this guy'

Calipari prescribed eye-catching energy as the way for Marcus Lee to make a greater impact. Through seven games, Lee is averaging 2.1 points and 4.0 rebounds, has made only seven of 19 shots and is an unsightly 1-for-8 from the foul line.

"The good news ... he was in the gym an hour early," Calipari said. "He has to add a 13-, 14-foot game. We can't have a bunch of guys out there they're not guarding. You can't really play offense if that's the case."

More than anything, Lee must be more active, Calipari said.

"He's got to be an energy guy. When he walks in (to the game), there's got to be a buzz in the building about his energy and his athleticism and his length. 'Look at this guy!' He can't ever be, like, down. His skill will be that as much as anything else."

High scale

To hear Calipari, a good practice is at the lower end of the grading scale.

"We have not had a bad practice," he said.

Calipari said the scale goes "from good to oh-my-gosh. That's where they're falling right now.

"I don't expect them to play like it's January right now, especially offensively. We haven't figured it out yet. But I just want to see great energy."

Etc.

■ Texas has never beaten a No. 1-ranked team. The Longhorns are 0-7 against No. 1.

■ Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and sideline reporter Shannon Spake will call the game for ESPN.

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