Since Kentucky’s last loss at Louisville, John Calipari has screamed from the mountaintops of Appalachia, “You lack discipline.” After Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee, he ditched his go-to word, failing to utter it once in his postgame press conference. Now he has to take a different approach to beat discipline into their heads, because what he’s been doing hasn’t worked.
“Discipline” is the ultimate coach-speak term, but what does it mean?
In sports, it’s simple: do your job. In football, it’s much easier to play disciplined. There’s 11 guys on the field. Each player has 2-3 simple tasks for each play, which makes the whole unit operate effectively. Basketball is much more dynamic, requiring players to master a variety of nuances that don’t come naturally.
It’s much easier said than done. When a post is larger than his opponents, every offensive rebound should be kept high, away from the opponent, but it’s easier to regain your balance by putting the ball on the floor once. It’s a natural move that often results in a turnover. Cal’s Cats are doing too much of what comes naturally, rather than doing the difficult things required to win.
“It’s not that we got selfish guys, they’re playing — just playing — versus OK, what are we trying to do each trip down?” Calipari said in Knoxville. “This is going to be a tough road and it’s a tough learning thing.”
Here are just a few ways players are taking the easy route instead of playing disciplined basketball.
Closing out on your opponent is the most basic concept in defensive basketball.
While rotating from help/off-ball defense to on-ball defense, a successful closeout is necessary. To properly closeout, the defender must sprint at his opponent and finish with small, choppy steps with his hands high. The choppy steps slow the defender’s momentum, allowing him to react quickly if the opponent drives, while his raised hands should force his opponent to hesitate, preventing a quick shot.
If you still don’t get it, this illustration should help.
For great shooters, a more aggressive closeout by the defender is needed to apply ball pressure and prevent any in-rhythm shots. For players more prone to go off the dribble, a less aggressive closeout is required to give the defender an extra step to recover and prevent penetration for easy baskets.
Tennessee hit 50 percent of their threes Tuesday night, but their offense is only good if they can effectively drive to the basket and create inside-out shots. Against a poor shooting team, the defense can’t closeout directly at an opponent — they’ll drive right to the basket. Instead, the defender must closeout short, providing an extra step to stop the offensive players next move.
Too often, UK closed out too close to their opponent, allowing Tennessee to drive right past them. Bam Adebayo’s opponent wasn’t going to pull up from 15 feet; he was going to drive every single time. Instead of closing out short and using his length to force a contested shot, Bam flew to close to the sun, right on top of his man. It allowed the opponent to create contact and go right at the rim, resulting in a layup or an open shot for a teammate.
Bump/Talk on Back Screens
Malik Monk is used to communicating when screens take place on the perimeter. When he’s faced with them in the post, most of the time they are simply a part of a motion offense. Tennessee used back screens in sets to get layups. A conservative estimate is that Monk gave up six points on wide open layups because he didn’t talk on back screens. Bam was held up on the screen and Monk either didn’t communicate or didn’t bump the man. It resulted in six points, six points that would’ve made a big difference in the final outcome.
Drive to Create Offense
Cal’s Cats have been great this year because of their ability to create quick baskets off the drive. Few are better at getting to the basket than Fox and Briscoe. It didn’t work Tuesday night.
Tennessee packed it in, preventing penetration. When UK’s guards did break through, they often failed to finish. Instead of using penetration to create space for other players, they were forcing contested shots near the rim. The quote Cal stole from Tom Brady is applicable:
“Doing what’s right for the team sometimes may not be right for you, but that’s how you win. You do what’s right for the team, not necessarily what’s right for you as an individual player.”
Ball Movement, Inside Out
Forced to play primarily in the half-court, the Cats got good looks when they forced Tennessee to defend for an extended amount of time. Even though UK didn’t make many shots in the first half, they got good looks because they got the ball into the middle of the floor, then kicked it out and around the perimeter until they found an open look.
Cal’s description of the early good ball movement: “Pass, pass, pass, pass, in, out, drive, kick, go.”
The easy route the young guards opted for too many times: “Whoever has it holds it as long as they can until they make a pass.”
Malik Monk is the king of heat checks. They don’t always go in, but that isn’t the type of heat check that’s killing Kentucky. This mindset is killing Kentucky: “I just did it, so I should be able to do it again, right?”
De’Aaron Fox’s consecutive possessions early in the first half demonstrate that mindset.
- Tennessee banks in a three.
- Fox immediately responds with a three of his own.
- Fox blocks a three-point shot into the stands.
- Feeling good about the three, Fox runs the floor and tries a layup over four guys. It doesn’t work.
- Fox’s man looks to take a three and Fox tries to send it again into the stands. The head fake gets Fox into the air and Tennessee got an easy two.
These great athletes make great plays, but they can’t do it every time. More times than not, discipline prevails.
This is just a small fraction of what Calipari’s players must do to play disciplined basketball for 40 minutes. It’s easier said than done. If you still don’t believe me, take it from Chuck D.
John Calipari won’t be able to fix everything in a few days, but that’s alright. “The good news is it’s still January.”