John Calipari is currently on the road recruiting, so Assistant Coach Joel Justus filled in for Coach Cal on the UK Sports Network’s weekly call-in radio show. And, of course, one of the first questions he was asked by a fan revolved around this team’s defining trait – their defense. The Wildcats are living or dying by how well their defense is performing this season – especially down the stretch – and Coach Justus knows that.
“Now that you’ve played 30 games, and some of those have been close, we know defense is who we are,” Coach Justus said. “We’re not a cool, pretty group. We’ve got to be a team that hangs their head on defense… Our offense then becomes better.”
The Cats’ late-game defense against Ole Miss showed the Cats can make those big stops as time winds down. And, like Coach Calipari said after Tuesday night’s victory, “You can’t win unless you get back on defense.”
“When you’re getting stops late, it’s good to go down and grind them out, which we’ve shown we can do,” Justus said. “When you can take 25-30 seconds off the shot clock and then PJ [Washington] can get you a shot or get to the free throw line? For the other team, that’s demoralizing at times.”
Even better? Justus says the coaches didn’t have to force defensive intensity or team communication during the final minutes of the Ole Miss matchup – the players took care of that for themselves.
“It was good to see the guys in the huddle really talking and locked in defensively,” Justus said. “We’re not talking about offense or what plays to run. The guys were the ones driving the conversations in those huddles, and that’s what we’re really looking for.”
But, it’s not perfect. Ashton Hagans, for example, has struggled to guard his man in recent games, most notably against Tennessee’s Jordan Bone. In some aspects of the game, Kentucky’s point guard has showed signs of regression since his stellar start to conference play. But, according to Justus, the change isn’t because of Hagans himself – other teams are just starting to figure out how to guard him.
“Ashton [Hagans] really started there in Chicago with his performance against North Carolina, and he had a great month. Teams have had to game plan for that,” Justus said. “I think you can see that because teams have had to adjust how they play. He’s a guy that should be disruptive. He gives us confidence in the back line.”
Losing Reid Travis has also affected that aspect of the game, according to Justus. While the Cats have certainly been missing Travis’ offensive contributions and rebounding efforts, losing his defensive abilities has been an “underrated” issue for the Wildcats. Justus called Travis “an anchor” for the Cats on defense; he’s someone who was always communicating and leading the team. Luckily, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery have both stepped up in that department.
“They’ve gained more experience in the last couple of weeks,” Justus said of Richards and Montgomery. “Those guys are so gifted, so talented. And sometimes you just need time… That’s a captain obvious comment, but everybody needs time to get better.”
With the season flying by, the team doesn’t have much time left for improvement. Thankfully, we’ve seen what Calipari and his staff can accomplish in a short period of time – but, with this group especially, it has to start with defense.