There seems to be something missing with this year’s Kentucky-Louisville game. Instead of its annual good-versus-evil finality, the game feels like one island (albeit a big island in the eyes of fans) in the stream of a season.
Both teams are in flux. Neither is rated in the top 10 (first time in this game since 2010), but each could be there by season’s end.
Coming the day after Christmas (first time since 1998), the game is, if not afterthought, then something else to fit in during the busy holiday season of gift wrapping, eggnog drinking and caroling.
UK Coach John Calipari continues to talk about process and getting from here to there. When asked Wednesday about Kentucky forming a team identity, he said, “Still working on it.”
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A moment later, Calipari made sure that wasn’t interpreted as a blind stumble forward.
“We’re not searching,” he said. “We’re a team that pressures the ball. We play fast. We have that identity.
“The question is how.”
How best to pressure and run. How best to use its players. How best to teach the players to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses.
For instance, a pressing, running team should get a majority of long rebounds and what used to be called loose balls. “Right now, we’re not winning that battle,” Calipari said. “And that’s what we’ve got to get to.”
This is what Kentucky (9-2) seeks to perfect and make routine by season’s end.
As part of this process, Marcus Lee suggested that Kentucky can benefit from losses to UCLA and Ohio State. A thought that came to mind was how, when he worked for UK, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino liked to call losses the fertilizer that helped grow future success.
“Two different ways of losing,” Lee said of the games against UCLA and Ohio State. “Also two different ways of learning. We learned a lot.”
When asked what UK learned, Lee said, “Both games we started off pretty slow. That’s what we’re trying to fix immediately. It took us some time to notice we can’t start that slow.”
Against Ohio State, Kentucky fell behind for good before the first television timeout. The Cats trailed by double digits with 9:24 left in the first half.
Against UCLA, Kentucky trailed 9-2 inside the first three minutes, which set the stage for a long uphill struggle.
Calipari acknowledged that slow starts are a problem. “Yeah,” he said. “We are concerned a little bit.”
The UK coach said a friend called him and joked that the Cats had to understand that opponents consume five-hour energy drinks before games.
“We’re still learning that,” Calipari said.
Without divulging specifics, Calipari said UK might alter its pregame preparation “to get us in a different frame of mind.”
It seemed the end of games also invited alteration. Calipari wondered aloud if Alex Poythress, Lee and UK’s guards were playing too many minutes.
“The two or three plays we had to make (against Ohio State), they didn’t have the energy to make that play,” Calipari said. “That’s what we have to figure out.”
Shooting, specifically shot selection, is another area in need of improvement, Calipari said. Making a poor percentage of shots is preferable to being afraid to shoot, thus inviting defenses to focus on teammates who will shoot.
For instance, Isaiah Briscoe must shoot pull-up jumpers rather than drive against a walled-up defense, Calipari said.
Without naming names, Calipari cited another example of poor tentativeness in the Ohio State game.
I took a guy out in the first half twice because I didn’t think he was being aggressive enough offensively,” Calipari said.
No secret that player was Jamal Murray, who was anything but tentative in his 27-point second half.
But Calipari questioned Murray’s shot selection, which echoed the UK coach’s observations from earlier this season about the freshman from Canada identifying good shots and bad shots.
“He’s got a bright green light,” Calipari said before adding, “I’d rather not see a lefty runner from the foul line. My thing is you’ve got to have discipline in this. Which means no one is telling you never to shoot. But then you’ve got to work hard to get good shots. You’ve just not going to take a bad one because you’ve got the green light.
“You’ve got to respect your team.”
Better shot selection will spread out opposing defenses, Calipari said, and make Kentucky a “way better team.”
No. 16 Louisville at No. 12 Kentucky
When: Noon Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Louisville 11-1; Kentucky 9-2
Series: Kentucky leads 33-15
Last meeting: Kentucky won 58-50 on Dec. 27, 2014, in Louisville.