John Clay

Kentucky basketball’s offense is great, but defense still needs work

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Kentucky scored 92 points on Saturday, made 11 of 19 three-pointers, dished 19 assists, averaged nearly 1.3 points per possession — that’s good, by the way — and took care of Auburn by 20 points in Rupp Arena.

You guessed it, there’s a sizable “but” coming here.

“At the end of the day, if we’re going to be anything,” said UK Coach John Calipari afterward, “it will be because we’re a terrific defensive team. We’re not there yet. We’re just not.”

And there was this: “I still think we’re a month away to being what we need this thing to be if we’re going to be one of those teams at the end, because we’re not there right now.”

Where we are is the halfway point of January. It’s two months until March Madness starts kicking in. And over the past week or so we’ve heard Calipari use that phrase quite a bit, the notion of “if we want to be one of those teams.”

In other words, if UK wants to be one of those teams that can make the Final Four, one of those teams that can be in the mix for the national championship, the team that can climb that ladder and clip those nets and hang a ninth national championship banner in Rupp Arena.

You know, one of “those” teams.

Despite the offensive fireworks, Kentucky was not one of those teams Saturday. Auburn shot 50 percent the first half and was right around the 50 percent mark for most of the second before tailing off at the end and finishing at 46.8.

Bruce Pearl’s offensive strategy wasn’t difficult to discern. The Tigers spread the floor to spread out the Kentucky defense and then drove the ball hard to the rim. Senior T.J. Dunans made 10 field goals on the way to 23 points. Two of Dunans’ buckets were three-pointers. The rest came off drives.

“We wanted to get their bigs away from the basket,” Pearl said afterward.

“Not our bigs,” countered Calipari when told Pearl’s comments. “That was to get the kid to drive against which player?”

Calipari likes to kid the media that it knows nothing about the sport, but even us “Basketball Bennies” got that one right. Most of the time, the Tigers were taking it at UK’s power forward position, or in numerical nomenclature, the four-spot, which normally falls to Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis.

“This is not hard,” Calipari said. “If you can’t move your feet and stay in front of everybody, either I have to play a zone or you can’t play. That’s why I went small lineup; let Mychal (Mulder) try to stay in front of them.”

Not that we should be picking on any particular position. For quite a while now, Calipari has talked about this team not being disciplined enough. Too many breakdowns on both sides of the ball, but especially on the defensive end.

“I had to fight them the whole game,” Calipari said Saturday. “I don’t enjoy coaching the way I coached today.”

Don’t get the wrong impression or draw the wrong conclusion. Calipari was happy with the win. He was in a pretty good mood in his news conference, even joking around about his often adversarial relationship with Pearl, who said he hoped that some of the things that he didn’t like about Calipari were some of the things Calipari didn’t like about him.

“Why would he think I don’t like him?” said Calipari with a smile.

It’s just that Calipari has won a national title. He’s been to three national championship games and six Final Fours. He knows what it takes to get there. And despite the impressive point productions and the blowout wins, this team doesn’t have what it takes. Not yet.

Next game

Kentucky at Mississippi State

7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

11/11/16

Stephen F Austin

87

64

W

1-0

 

11/13/16

Canisus

93

69

W

2-0

 

11/15/16

vsMichigan State

68

49

W

3-0

 

11/20/16

Duquense

93

59

W

4-0

 

11/23/16

Cleveland State

101

70

W

5-0

 

11/25/16

UT-Martin

111

76

W

6-0

 

11/28/16

vsArizona St

115

69

W

7-0

 

12/3/16

UCLA

92

97

L

7-1

 

12/7/16

Valparaiso

87

63

W

8-1

 

12/11/16

Hofstra

96

73

W

9-1

 

12/17/16

vsNorth Carolina

103

100

W

10-1

 

12/21/16

@Louisville

70

73

L

10-2

 

12/29/16

@Ole Miss

99

76

W

11-2

1-0

1/3/17

Texas A&M

100

58

W

12-2

2-0

1/7/17

Arkansas

97

71

W

13-2

3-0

1/10/17

@Vanderbilt

87

81

W

14-2

4-0

1/14/17

Auburn

92

72

W

15-2

5-0

1/17/17

@Miss St

     

1/21/17

S Carolina

     

1/24/17

@Tennessee

     

1/28/17

Kansas

     

1/31/17

Georgia

     

2/4/17

@Florida

     

2/7/17

LSU

     

2/11/17

@Alabama

     

2/14/17

Tennessee

     

2/18/17

@Georgia

     

2/21/17

@Missouri

     

2/25/17

Florida

     

2/28/17

Vanderbilt

     

3/4/17

@Texas A&M

     
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