LEXINGTON, Ky. — At Tuesday’s news conference, Kentucky coach John Calipari all but called for fans to start chanting “defense-defense-defense” beginning with Wednesday night’s game against winless Monmouth.
Kentucky (5-1) will score enough points to be successful, he said. Ultimately, UK’s destiny this season will rest on how much pride the players take in defense.
As of Tuesday, Kentucky’s defensive numbers were not pretty. The Cats ranked No. 256 nationally in average points allowed (75.5), No. 279 in opponents’ shooting accuracy (45.8 percent) and No. 350 (that’s fourth from last) in opponents’ 3-point shooting accuracy (43.4 percent).
So no wonder Calipari sighed when asked the defensive standard he wants Kentucky to reach.
“Let’s just be better than yesterday,” he said.
Calipari even voluntarily mentioned retreating and becoming — horror of horrors — reliant on a zone defense.
“I just don’t want to be that guy,” he said before adding, “maybe I will be.”
As he has done repeatedly this early season, Calipari asked fans to blame him and not the players for Kentucky’s defensive performance. He cited a false sense of confidence created during August exhibition games in the Bahamas that distracted him.
“I got enamored like everybody else,” he said.
This echoed a theme Calipari hit on and returned to repeatedly on his weekly radio show Monday night.
“The issues we had in the Bahamas defensively I didn’t think were real issues,” he said Monday night. “And they were real issues.”
Players come to Kentucky having been — almost exclusively — high school stars. Their high school teams needed their scoring, so defense — and the accompanying possibility of foul trouble — was discouraged, Calipari said.
Of the slobbering hype affording top recruits, Calipari asked a pointed question: “Did they ever talk about their defense?”
The best defender on the high school level? “That guy never got any recognition,” he said.
Monmouth (0-7) may not present a threatening test. The Hawks rank No. 337 in scoring (60.6 ppg), No. 332 in shooting (37.8 percent) and No. 340 in 3-point baskets (4.7 per game).
Not that Calipari dismissed the possibility of Kentucky’s defense making Monmouth a better scoring team.
“I know they can beat us,” he said. “If we don’t guard, anybody can beat us.”
Calipari reminded his radio audience that competition in the Southeastern Conference is looming.
“We’ve got to get this defense going soon because (in the SEC) we’ll have to score a hundred to stay in games,” he said.
Kentucky ranks No. 35 in scoring (84.5 ppg), first in rebound margin (plus 17.2) and 10th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
“That’s why I saw the offense is fine … ,” Calipari said. “It comes back to, ‘All right, let’s just keep stopping these people.’ It’s not our personality. We’re not there yet.”
“I’m getting a little frustrated. I want to have fun with this. … As we go through the grind of this, you’ve got to have fun with this.
For those needing reassurance, Calipari cited UK’s December schedule. After Saturday’s game against UNC Greensboro, the Cats play only once a week until a Jan. 8 mid-week game against Texas A&M.
“I don’t have time to do all the stuff we want to do, especially (when) we’re going backward defensively,” Calipari said. “So there are things we’re going to add the next couple weeks when … I’ve got time.”
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