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October 27, 2011

Cal wants Cats to become 'special' defensive team

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - John Calipari will talk about most anything you ask at Southeastern Conference Basketball Media Day.

Conference realignment? Sure. Vanderbilt's experience? Absolutely. The expectations facing his Kentucky basketball team? No sweat.

You pick a topic, and Calipari's down to discuss.

Well, almost any topic.

The Kentucky basketball coach on Thursday was none to keen to chat about Terrence Jones 52-point performance in Wednesday's Blue-White Scrimmage.

Asked what to draw from Jones' performance, Calipari all but shrugged.

"The guy guarding him wasn't a very good defender, for one thing," Calipari said Thursday morning at the Wynfrey Hotel.

That, for Calipari, is a common preseason theme.

Though Calipari has heaped praise on his team so far this preseason, he's shifted this week into coach mode. He's happy to tell you what's right with his team, but he'd rather tell you what's wrong.

And what's wrong, to hear Calipari tell is, is that he's got a bunch of lousy defenders. And that can't be the case, he said, if the Cats are to climb to NCAA championship heights.

"If we're to be what everybody thinks we are, we're going to have to be special defensively," Calipari said. "That means you can't just give up lanes to the rim. That means you stop splits, you contest shots and then you rebound like crazy. One team (in the Blue-White Scrimmage) had 24 offensive rebounds. The other had 14 offensive rebounds. That can't be who we are."

If history is any indication, it won't be.

Calipari's last seven teams have ranked in the top 12 in NCAA Division I basketball in field-goal percentage defense. A Calipari-coached team hasn't allowed its opponents to shoot better than 40 percent for a season since Memphis in 2003-04.

That success comes as a result of a consistent focus on defense, said Auburn coach Tony Barbee, who played for Calipari at Massachusetts and was on Calipari's staff at UMass and Memphis.

"Offense is going to come and go," Barbee said. "You're going to make shots some day, you're not going to make shots another day. But how hard you compete on the defensive end of the floor - the toughness, the intensity, the rebounding - that's got to be a constant. That's what he preaches, and that's why his teams are so good at it."

Last season, Kentucky held its opponents to 39.4 percent shooting, the 12th-lowest total in Division I. The Wildcats gave up 63.5 points per game, which ranked 54th in Division I, and showed defensive improvement over the course of the season.

Kentucky went 10-1 down the stretch, losing to Connecticut in the Final Four. During that 11-game stretch, no team scored 70 points against the Wildcats. Six opponents in that streak scored 60 or fewer.

"He really stresses on defense," Jones said. "He knows that's what we've got to do to advance and win. That's what we do, because he believes we can score. It's just, can we stop players? Whoever gets the most stops wins."

Jones said Kentucky has the potential to be a standout defensive team.

Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is "real similar," Jones said, to DeAndre Liggins, who last season was UK's perimeter stopper. In freshman Anthony Davis, the Wildcats have a player who could be among the nation's best shot-blockers.

"That's one of (Davis') best skills, to me," Jones said. "It makes it real difficult for a team to come in and try to get a layup knowing that he's down there. If he blocks you once, you're going to at last think about it the next time you're driving."

Jones said "bad defense" was the key to his 52-point performance in Wednesday night's scrimmage, but he noted that the split-squad game led to fatigue for some UK players. Four players on the White squad he scored at will against played at least 38 minutes.

As Kentucky focuses its efforts on opposing teams, Jones said, defense should be easier.

And, as usual, it will take on increased importance for Calipari in the coming months.

"Now, we have focused a lot on offense (in practice), and it shows," Calipari said. "Now we've got a zone and we worked that. The other thing is, I think this could be a good pressing team. How much we press, I don't know, but it should be… . And we haven't worked on it enough to give them the real principles of how we're playing this press. So we've got to get to that. There's a lot of stuff. Let me just tell you, I get a headache thinking about what we have to do."


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