John Clay

Schedule makes it difficult to know if basketball Cats are progressing

John Calipari: This is what happens when you get older

At his press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari joked about getting older. The Wildcats play host to winless Monmouth on Wednesday at Rupp Arena in Lexington. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m.
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At his press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari joked about getting older. The Wildcats play host to winless Monmouth on Wednesday at Rupp Arena in Lexington. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m.

At his Tuesday media meeting, John Calipari joked that the older he gets, the more he tends to repeat himself.

Then he repeated himself.

“Here’s what’s happened to me, personally,” said the Kentucky basketball coach, echoing recent remarks, “I’m expecting them to be farther along than they are ready to be.”

Truth be told, it is difficult to know exactly how far along these Cats are right now for a reason exemplified by their Wednesday night opponent at Rupp Arena.

Monmouth has yet to win a basketball game this season.

The Hawks are 0-7. They’ve lost to Lehigh by 24; Colgate by 13; Saint Joseph’s by 15; West Virginia by 18; Valparaiso by 11; CSU Fullerton by 24 and Princeton by three. Monmouth is 263rd in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings, 317th in Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings and 345th in the new NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings. That’s out of 353 Division I basketball teams, by the way.

Monmouth is also of a piece with Kentucky’s non-conference schedule to this point. Even though UK opened with Duke in the Champions Classic, the Cats’ strength of schedule is ranked 295th toughest by Pomeroy and 306th by Sagarin. So, yes, after the Duke debacle, the Cats have won five straight, but over Southern Illinois (3-3), North Dakota (4-2), VMI (5-2), Winthrop (3-3) and Tennessee State (2-4).

Compare that to Duke, who has already played three top-10 teams in then-No. 2 Kentucky, No. 8 Auburn and then-No. 3 Gonzaga. Compare it to Kansas, who has played Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee. Besides Kansas, Tennessee has played Louisville and Georgia Tech. Besides Duke, Auburn has played Washington, Xavier and Arizona.

Unlike Kentucky, those teams played in early-season tournaments. Kansas and Tennessee played in the NIT Season Tip-off in Brooklyn. Duke and Auburn played in the Maui Invitational, a destination Calipari has deemed “too long a trip” since UK last visited in 2010.

Every coach has his or her own scheduling philosophy, of course. Given his roster’s normal high turnover rate, Calipari wants the breathing room necessary for his youngsters’ early development. And just down the road UK’s degree of schedule difficulty does strengthen. More on that a bit.

So, heading into their seventh game of the season, where does this collection of Cal’s Cats stand now?

“Offensively, we’re doing some good stuff,” said the coach Tuesday.

According to Pomeroy, Kentucky is 10th nationally in offensive efficiency. Though shooting just 33 percent from three-point range, UK is shooting 48.7 percent overall and 74.4 percent from the foul line. The Cats are crushing people on the glass, outrebounding opponents by an average of 17.2 per game. Through Monday’s games, UK led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 46.3 percent of its opportunities.

The other end of the floor is the bane of Calipari’s current existence, however. “We have to get better defensively,” he repeated Tuesday.

And defense is Calipari’s thing. For all the offensive stars he has sent to the NBA, the coach’s idea of a perfect game is one in which his team shoots 30 percent or below and still wins. He wants disruption. He wants blocked shots. He wants defenders.

Thus far, Pomeroy has the Cats placed 44th in defensive efficiency. Much of that has to do with how poorly they’ve defended three-point shots. The Cats rank 350th in that category with opponents shooting a ridiculous 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. “If we don’t guard,” Calipari said Tuesday with a nod to Monmouth, “anybody can beat us.”

The schedule does toughen. Saturday’s opponent, UNC Greensboro entered Tuesday 6-1, its lone defeat a six-point loss at LSU. The following Saturday, UK travels to New York to play a Seton Hall team that Sunday defeated Miami 83-81 to win the Wooden Legacy tournament in California. After that comes Utah, North Carolina in Chicago and a road game at Louisville.

“Is there ever going to be an easy year for me?” said Calipari, repeating himself yet again.

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