We’ve heard it time and time again this season: this is one of John Calipari’s best shooting teams. But in the first half against Kansas, that wasn’t very evident. The Cats entered the locker room at halftime 0-8 from behind-the-line. And Calipari was not happy.
“I told them at halftime… You can’t be 0-for-8, guys,” Cal said after the game. “You don’t have to make them all – you just can’t miss them all. You have to make a couple.”
They got the message. The Cats went 4-10 from the three in the second half. Although Calipari called that “the difference in the game,” he still wanted to see more.
“We’ve got guys that either are in the lodge, in class or in the craft center. They are one of three. They live in the practice facility,” Calipari said. ‘”They probably take 5,000 shots, maybe more, a week. Why would you be tentative shooting the ball? You deserve to make shots.”
5,000 shots a week? Sounds about right to Keldon Johnson.
“We stay in the gym. Late night, before practice, after practice. Then we come back after practice and work out,” Johnson said. “Everybody pretty much just stays in the gym.”
Considering the Cats were shooting 33 percent from the floor and zero percent from the three-point line at half, it’s impressive Kansas only had a 3-point lead. That’s where defense came in to save the day.
“Guys are going to have off-nights shooting. We didn’t hit really any jump shots in the first half and it was still a 3-point game,” Reid Travis said. “So you just have to credit defense and just grinding it out. We’re showing we can win in multiple ways. You don’t have to hit the three a lot to win… it’s been good to show we can win it in different aspects of the game.”
Against the Jayhawks, the Cats attempted 18 three-pointers. While Calipari obviously wants more from his “best shooting team,” he knows that’s not all they can do to win games. In a perfect world, Calipari says this team is attempting between 20 and 23 treys per game.
“We’re a good post-up team; we’re a good driving team,” Cal said. “You don’t need to rely on just jacking threes. But, if you leave us alone, if you trap the post, if you collapse your defense, we’re good enough to make those shots.”
At the beginning of the season, defense was one of the major weaknesses of this year’s roster. Duke delivered a 118-point beating, and the Cats struggled to come back. But over the last couple of weeks, something changed. In four of the last five games, Kentucky has held their opponent’s shooting percentage to 40 percent or less; they’re now 7-0 this season when that happens. Kansas shot 36.5 percent from the floor. In five of the last six games, UK’s opponent has scored 61 points or less. And, according to Kansas head coach Bill Self, one player in particular impacted that in Saturday’s matchup.
“They are good defensively. I thought [Tyler] Herro is really an underrated defender in my eyes, from what I saw,” Self said. “I thought he did a good job on [Lagerald] Vick, really good job. I thought he denied him the ball. We tried to fake-screen him a few times and do some different things, and he always seemed to get through it. I think he’s a very active, very good player.”
When asked about the defensive changes from a few months ago until now, both Travis and Johnson pointed to increased communication. But for Calipari, it’s more about confidence.
“We’re able to guard the ball. When we went to the Bahamas, we could not guard the ball, but we were playing teams that we could run through,” Calipari said. “When you come back and you can’t guard the ball, you’re getting smooshed [and] you have no confidence, so now your team looks like a team that has no confidence. When you have defensive confidence, that bleeds into your offense.”
Moral of the story? Kentucky CAN win games, even close ones down the stretch, without draining every single three-pointer – even if they are Calipari’s best shooting team.