John Calipari, Young Kentucky Team Starting To Mesh

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John Calipari, Young Kentucky Team Starting To Mesh

Kentucky’s defense was so bad against Sam Houston State, even the Wildcats found it funny.

So Head Coach John Calipari said Kentucky (4-0) responded Friday by learning how to defend the three, how to communicate on the court, and find what it’s like to play with a sense of urgency.

“We watched film of the three point shots from the Sam Houston game,” Calipari said. “We showed them the lack of communication and transition defense where we did not match up well. Some of it was almost hysterical, they were laughing at each other.”

A day later, the result was a Kentucky team that lived up to its billing.

The Wildcats knew they were bigger, stronger, and more talented than their first three opponents, but they waited until Saturday’s 92-63 win over Rider (2-2) to show it. In a game of massive Kentucky runs, the Wildcats outscored the Broncs 51-26 in the first half, never allowing Rider to have a say in the final result.

John Wall led Kentucky with his second straight 21-point performance and added 11 assists. Wall, an 18-year-old freshman, said his success has all to do with how he responded to Calipari’s criticisms.

Wall turned the ball over only twice Saturday. Coming into the Rider game, he was averaging 5.5 turnovers a game.

"We felt much better about today's game,” Wall said. “In practice we watched film and coach showed us where we were making mistakes. None of us have played under Coach Cal and we didn't know how he taught. We’re just learning from our mistakes and listening to what he's telling us.”

Calipari said Wall isn’t alone in being lost, four games into the season. He’s just another part of the first-year coach’s five-player recruiting class trying to adjust to college basketball.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, there wasn’t much time to learn before they were tested.

Miami of Ohio’s Nick Winbush pushed Kentucky into a one-possession game last Monday, setting a record for three-point field goals by an opponent in Rupp Arena with eight. Sam Houston State’s Corey Allmond set a new standard on Thursday night with 11 threes.

After fighting off some pesky opponents, implementing Calipari’s “dribble drive” offense was put on the back burner in favor of teaching youth to play defense.

“We talked about it and said to find your men early and keep your head up,” Calipari said. “This is old. John (Wall) is 18-years-old. I have a whole team of 18-year-olds. It is a learning process for us all.”

From the other side, Rider coach Tommy Dempsey said Kentucky’s defensive woes aren’t as bad as Calipari makes them out to be.

The Wildcats forced the Broncs into 31 percent field goal shooting for the game and 23.5 percent from three. Rider’s 63 points were the second lowest the team has scored this season.

“I think they took their foot off the gas here and there, but when they are engaged, start playing the big-time programs and start locking in, they are going to have a special team,” Dempsey said.

Senior guard Ramon Harris, however, is taking Calipari’s words to heart. Following the Wildcats’ 102-92 win over Sam Houston State, Calipari said that at this point, this is the worst defensive team he’s had since 1988.

Harris, one of three seniors on Kentucky’s roster to play under three different coaches, said the Wildcats have more work to do despite a good outing against Rider.

“We still made our mistakes, and like I said before, it's the beginning of the season and we have a lot of new guys and we are all still trying to learn a new coach’s system,” Harris said. “I think once the season goes on, we will become a better defensive team.”

Kentucky hosts Cleveland State next Tuesday.

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