As a teaching tool, Kentucky’s game at UCLA on Thursday can be a rousing success.
“This is a tape we can learn from,” UK Coach John Calipari said after the 87-77 loss.
For instance, Kentucky players can learn why they should play better defense.
“We’re usually a pretty good defensive team,” Calipari said. “They scored 87 points. And if they weren’t holding the ball, it would have been 97.”
UCLA (5-3) milked the clock in an effort to avoid getting sped up, thus creating the turnovers and ill-advised shots that fuel Kentucky’s transition game. The Cats had only four fast-break points. UCLA had none and didn’t seem keen on getting many.
Only twice in Calipari’s seven seasons as coach has a Kentucky opponent scored 87 or more points. Indiana in the 2012 NCAA Tournament (a 102-90 UK victory) and Sam Houston State in 2009-10 (a 102-92 UK victory).
UCLA’s 52.8 percent shooting accuracy was the best against Kentucky since Wichita State made 55.1 percent of its shots in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
This is the growing pains of trying to coach the most inexperienced team in the country.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari
UCLA sophomore big man Thomas Welsh provided an example of how Kentucky’s defense must improve. He repeatedly got open shots by setting a screen, and then looking for a pass after either cutting to the basket or fading out to a wing.
His 8-for-11 shooting and 21 points showed how effectively UCLA used the pick-and-roll and the pick-and-pop.
“That’s something we went over in practice and in shoot-around,” freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe said with a tone of mild exasperation. “We tried to key in on that. They came out here and just executed.”
Calipari put the loss in the context of a freshman-dependent team needing to learn what it takes to succeed and how to provide what it takes.
“This is the growing pains of trying to coach the most inexperienced team in the country,” he said, only mildly exaggerating UK’s ranking as the third-most inexperienced team in Division I. “But I’m fine with it. We got beat. We got kicked. We move on.”
Calipari found his players’ response to being outplayed in the first half lacking.
“I wanted to see what would happen,” Calipari said. “And what happened was we didn’t get any tougher. We didn’t get any stronger. We didn’t make any other plays.”
Freshman big man Skal Labissiere got another reminder that he must become more of a physical presence. He must become more willing, even eager, to fight for position and impose his will.
Welsh outrebounded Labissiere 11-1.
There was a big rebound we needed. (Skal Labissiere) didn’t get it. I was trying to get him to get the rebounds. Heat of the moment.
Tyler Ulis, on shoving Labissiere
Late in the game, with Kentucky a play or two from making UCLA tremble, floor general Tyler Ulis shoved Labissiere.
“There was a big rebound we needed,” Ulis said. “He didn’t get it. I was trying to get him to get the rebounds. Heat of the moment.”
Ulis made sure reporters knew he thought Labissiere would get the message.
Although it was unclear that he saw the play, Calipari seemed to have no problem with Ulis’ shove.
“Tyler, he coaches this team as well as I do,” Calipari said. “So whatever he did, I know he did it with love.”
The overarching lesson Calipari hoped the defeat would illustrate involved the need to match, if not exceed, the opponent’s zeal.
UCLA had plenty of that, especially given last season’s humiliating 83-44 loss to Kentucky. UCLA Coach Steve Alford referred to that game when asked where he’d rank the victory.
“There have been a lot of fun times,” he said, “but this one is very special because of what happened last year.”
In his postgame remarks, Calipari repeatedly saluted UCLA’s effort and execution. Not for the first time, the UK coach suggested his program brings out the best in other teams. A season-high crowd of 12,202 — almost double the Bruins’ average home attendance this season of 6,381 — bolstered the argument.
“Playing at Kentucky, that’s what you get,” Calipari said. “You get that other team’s best.”
UCLA had only a 4-3 record going into the game. Numbers maven Ken Pomeroy rated the Bruins at No. 49, which was between Dayton and Tulsa.
“It’s not like we’ve gotten off to a blazing start this year,” Alford said. “But we’re growing.”
Growth is what Kentucky seeks from the loss.
When asked what UK could learn, Ulis said, “That anybody can beat us. We have to be ready. We have to come out and play. And, you know, we can’t win off just talent.”
Maybe Kentucky pondered that reality on the five-hour flight home.
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
7 p.m. (ESPN2)