Kentucky's Opening Games Present Reality Check on Defense

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Kentucky's Opening Games Present Reality Check on Defense
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Kentucky Wildcats’ first two games may not have yielded the overwhelming victories Big Blue fans anticipated.

But if coach John Calipari truly expects Kentucky basketball to make a full recovery, two squeakers were just what the doctor ordered.

On Monday, Miami of Ohio finished 15-of-26 from three-point range. Their star forward, Nick Winbush, opened a perfect 6-of-6 from deep. The Wildcats found themselves down 36-18 to the visiting Redhawks—in Rupp Arena, no less.

Yet Kentucky fought back to win 72-70 on a last-second field goal by John Wall, the highly touted touch in Calipari’s first recruiting class in the Bluegrass State.

Calipari said he didn’t mind the 18-point first-half deficit, enduring his getting-to-know-you period with the Wildcats in the most trying fashion.

“I was ecstatic that we got down 18 points because I wanted to see what we were made of,” Calipari said. “When this team wouldn't go away, the thing I loved about my team was they would say, ‘We are not losing this. We are not losing this game.’”

The Wildcats visited the National Invitational Tournament last March in their second season under Head Coach Billy Gillispie. With Calipari, they inked the top recruiting class in college basketball—including Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Jon Hood, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton—and entered the season No. 4 in the nation.

Expectations are running high, but Calipari said some tight contests to start the season are good for keeping his players—and him—down to Earth.

“We needed this,” Calipari said on Monday. “When you are not in a situation coaching that is life or death and you are trying to get your team better, you can feel the way I was feeling out there. Yeah, I wanted to win the game. But I needed to learn.”

Thursday night’s 102-92 win over Sam Houston State didn’t go over as well with the coach, who said that right now this is “the worst defensive team that [he has] had since 1988.”

The Bearkats’ Corey Allmond broke former Kentucky player Tony Delk’s Rupp Arena three-point shooting record in his 37-point performance, once again shredding the nets on the Wildcats’ home court.

At halftime, Sam Houston state had recorded only two two-point field goals. The rest were threes.

The offense was there for Kentucky, but Calipari was less than high on his team’s defense after the game.

“They have no urgency defensively—none,” Calipari said. “There is not enough time in the day for me to teach all the habits that these guys need. I am going to try like heck.”

Without watching the tape, the players knew the Wildcats’ biggest problem defensively: communication.

“We have to talk,” Wall said. “The next couple teams we play can shoot threes. Rider can shoot threes better than [Sam Houston State], so we have to work on it. I'm not really concerned, but we're nowhere where need to be as an offensive team or a defensive team. They main thing we need to work on right now is our defense. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Kentucky hosts Rider this Saturday at 1 p.m. With less than two days to prepare, Calipari said he knows how much the Wildcats can improve between now and then is limited.

But according to Bledsoe, the players know where to start.

"Communication is a big problem,” Bledsoe said. “Ramon [Harris] did it and we have to start feeding off of him. Teams are going to come in a lot this season trying to go at John [Wall], and that's when everybody else has to step up and start making plays.

“You can't just let teams come in and break records like they did tonight. It definitely gets everybody's attention.”

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