It’s not often you hear a basketball coach suggest that making more shots would be a problem. But Kentucky Coach John Calipari gave it a try Friday.
When asked about Kentucky’s poor perimeter shooting this season, he suggested that more swishes would obscure a potentially more threatening long-term problem.
“You wouldn’t see the issue we have,” Calipari said of all the hypothetical UK shots going in the basket. “Which is physical play. Which is grit. Which is fight. That is our issue.”
Arizona State, which plays Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, is a convenient opponent to test the steel in this UK team’s spine, Calipari said. The Sun Devils’ eight most productive players include three seniors and three juniors.
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During the telecast of Arizona State’s victory over SEC contender Texas A&M last weekend, the announcers quoted Coach Bobby Hurley as saying his team had a blue-collar streak. It was not a finesse team, the announcers made a point of relaying.
“Some of our toughness comes with our experience,” Hurley said Thursday.
Arizona State figures to challenge UK on the boards. The Cats rank 18th in rebound margin (plus 10), while Arizona State ranks 35th (plus eight).
“We’re feisty with our rebounding,” Hurley said.
In further testament to Arizona State’s toughness, Texas A&M had scored only 19 points with a little more than 16 minutes left in the second half.
“It was probably the best we defended all year,” Hurley said.
Hurley said UK had toughness. “You can start with Tyler Ulis. How hard he plays and how he defends. . . . The way they can attack you off the dribble demonstrates toughness to get to the rim and make plays. They really appear to pressure the ball really well, and making extra-effort plays on defense.”
But to Calipari’s eye, there is not nearly enough toughness, especially along the front line.
In trying to foster more toughness, Calipari said he recently ordered a practice drill in which the player who epitomizes UK’s need for more of a physical presence, freshman big man Skal Labissiere, tried to hold the ball as two managers “whacked” him with padded arms.
“It went to where he was doing this,” Calipari said before crouching down in a semi-fetal position.
Then senior Alex Poythress got the ball and the whacks. “Skal’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, you can do that,’” Calipari said of the example Poythress set. “Yes, you can. You’ve got to be able to hold the ball.”
Not that Poythress is a finished product as a physical presence. While saluting Poythress’s three double-doubles in the last six games, Calipari added, “Time to do it against juniors and seniors who are as physical as you.”
Poythress’s double-doubles came against Wright State, Boston U. and Eastern Kentucky. Against Duke and UCLA, he was less robust: 4-for-16 shooting, 6.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg.
At a listed 7-foot and 260 pounds, freshman Isaac Humphries has the size to compete physically. But, as Calipari said, “I’m trying to get Skal going. I’ve got to leave him on the court and let him play through some mistakes. Part of this is his confidence. That he can hold his own. . . . When he’s doing things right, I’ve got to leave him in and let him do it.”
Meanwhile, if Kentucky keeps missing shots, opposing defenses can make the basket area even more congested and physically testing. UK ranks 333rd in the nation in three-pointers per game (4.3) and 327th in three-point accuracy (27.5 percent).
“I’m not worried,” Calipari said. “We have good shooters not making shots. They’re making them in practice.”
Jamal Murray, who leads the team with 33.3 percent accuracy from three-point range, said he and Ulis (28.1 percent) have made 70 three-point shots in a five-minute shooting drill. Isaiah Briscoe (23.1 percent) said he’d made 64 three-pointers in the same drill.
Of course, there’s no defender contesting the shot in the drill. And not much defense in games, either.
“When you look at the threes, they’re wide open,” Calipari said. “Like they’re open. We’re just not making them.”
Murray suggested that all the grit, fight and muscle UK’s looking for might not fix the poor perimeter shooting.
“We’re thinking too much about our misses,” he said, “and we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves to make the shot. . . . You start aiming. Same thing with free-throw shooting.”
Kentucky ranks 203rd in free-throw accuracy at 67.8 percent.
“We all can shoot free throws,” Murray said. “We’re thinking too much.”
▪ Poythress tore an anterior cruciate ligament a year ago Friday. “Most of it is him getting by himself right now . . . ,” Calipari said of the mental hurdle Poythress must clear. “I have no thoughts of that injury. And I hope he doesn’t.”
▪ Calipari said he approached Mychal Mulder, who came to UK billed as a shooter, and told him the poor shooting created an opportunity. “Perfect for you to come to practice and show us . . . ,” Calipari said he told Mulder. “He missed his next eight shots.” Mulder hasn’t played more than four minutes in a game. He’s 0-for-1 from three-point range.
▪ Dave O’Brien and Dick Vitale will call the game for ESPN.
Arizona State at Kentucky
When: 3:15 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 8-1, Arizona State 6-2
Series: Kentucky leads 3-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 82-65 on Nov. 25, 2002, in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Reserves: 1-Maurice O’Field, G-F, 6-5, So.; 5-Obinna Oleka, F, 6-7, Jr.; 22-Austin Witherill, G, 6-0, So.; 24-Andrew Spight, G, 6-3, Jr.; 34-Tyler Harris, G, 6-5, Fr.; 44-Kodi Justice, G, 6-5, Fr.; 55-Shazier Lawson, G, 6-4, Fr.
Reserves: 00-Marcus Lee, F, 6-9, Jr.; 4-Charles Matthews, G, 6-6, Fr.; 10-Jonny David, G, 6-2, Fr.; 11-Mychal Mulder, G, 6-4, Jr.; 15-Isaac Humphries, F, 7-0, Fr.; 24-EJ Floreal, G, 6-4, Jr.; 25-Dominique Hawkins, G, 6-0, Jr.; 35-Derek Willis, F, 6-9, Jr.