Cal: Zone a 4-letter word, but may be needed
In John Calipari’s coaching vocabulary, “zone” has always been one of those dreaded four-letter words.
“I hate it,” the Kentucky coach said prior to Monday’s practice.
But just like the language deemed inappropriate on public airwaves, some four-letter words are worse than others. For Calipari, perhaps the only thing worse is “loss.”
“We’ve won a lot of games, a lot of league championships, a lot of league tournament championships, a lot of NCAA games playing man (defense). So I know that’s the best way to do it,” he said. “But I also know, more than anything else, I want this team to have a chance to win, so I’ve got to look at everything and say 'How?' and be honest about it and not worry about me because it’s not about me. It’s about this team.”
Calipari says his Wildcats (10-5, 1-1 SEC) are approaching crisis mode after having their trademark man-to-man defense exploited in their first two league games.
On Thursday night in Nashville, Vanderbilt battled back from a 16-point second-half deficit by isolating Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer and attacking the Cats’ weakest on-ball defender at every opportunity. Kentucky held on for a 60-58 victory, but the same Commodore team was held to 33 points in its next game against Arkansas. It marked the second time this season that Vanderbilt has been held to 33 points and its fourth time under 50 points.
And on Saturday at Rupp Arena, Texas A&M swingman Elston Turner exploded for a career-high 40 points -- the third-best performance by a visiting player against UK in the history of the tradition-rich venue -- in leading the Aggies to a stunning 83-71 victory. He entered the game averaging 15.5 points per game.
Two games, two more red flags for a young Kentucky team struggling to define itself and possibly redefining its coach’s philosophy. Many are asking what's wrong with the defending champions, who did not receive a single vote for inclusion anywhere in the top 25 of Monday's latest AP poll.
“We’re trying some different things, things I haven’t done in my career,” Calipari said. “I played more zone in that (Texas A&M) game since I’ve been the coach here, and maybe that’s something we go to. We’ve been working on it. We spent more time on zone defense in the last two weeks than we have in my entire coaching career, so we’re trying to figure out ... how to put these guys in the best position to win.”
The new defensive approach the Cats have tried to implement may not resemble what fans initially think of when they hear the term “zone.”
“The zone we’re playing is a really active one,” Calipari said. “We’re trying to get them to just run around. Probably more active than they would be if they were playing man-to-man.”
Oddly, Kentucky's overall defensive statistics are on par with Calipari's three previous teams. The Wildcats are holding opponents to 38.1 percent from the field. Last year's national championship squad -- which went 38-2 and had four players taken in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft -- held opponents to 37.4 percent.
Calipari says this collection of talent, dominated by his fourth consecutive No. 1 recruiting class, is different from previous Kentucky teams because it lacks a defensive player who could take an opposing guard out of the game in crunch time. In other words, there is no DeAndre Liggins or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
“There’s no one here to mimic, no one here to imitate,” he said. “This team doesn’t have the stopper those other teams have had, one guy, just go guard somebody ... When a team gets on a run, if you don’t have a guy who says 'Let me go guard him,' that’s the difference. An emotional guy. 'Let’s go. Let’s stop this. That’s enough.' Those are developing things within this team.”
Asked what made players like Liggins and Kidd-Gilchrist thrive in those roles, Calipari said: “Took pride in it. Just said, 'Not acceptable. And I’m playing you, and I’m not fouling you.' There’s some pride in that. You’ve got to take that on to get to where you want to be. Both of those guys have driven that trait to the NBA.”
Easier said than done? “It’s hard,” Calipari added.
The UK boss said he’s not looking for “Rah-rah,” just effectiveness. “It doesn’t have to be verbal, but your game has to show it.” He suggested freshman guard Archie Goodwin may be the player he turns to for more defensive responsibility.
Kentucky gets an opportunity to get back on the winning track Tuesday when Tennessee (8-6, 0-2 SEC) visits Rupp Arena for a 7 p.m. ET tip. Calipari will be watching closely to see if the Cats are, as he said, “buying in” to what he’s preaching.
“My issue is recognizing, now let’s begin to change,” he said. “As long as that’s happening, we’re good. If it isn’t happening, there’s not going to be a change on the court. You keep getting beat.
“Now, if there is a change, my vision is there’s no one late in the season who’s going to want to play this team if we get it right. Right now, it appears everybody wants to play this team.”