After dominating in the Bahamas on both ends of the floor, and then again putting on a show in the Blue-White Game, the Big Blue Nation really had no idea what they were watching in Kentucky’s two exhibition matches. Against far inferior competition in Transylvania and IUP, baskets were hard to come by, they got out-worked in the low post, and worst of all, they got beat off the dribble on the perimeter. It didn’t look like a skill issue, it seemed to be pure effort.
Still, though, many assumed they were just playing down to their competition and looking forward to their much-anticipated matchup with Duke in the Champions Classic.
And then they suffered a 34-point beatdown under the national spotlight. And then they found themselves down by as many as seven points in the second half against Southern Illinois, eventually grinding out a “meh” 12-point victory. Again, the offensive production was mediocre, but the team’s defensive intensity was the key frustration for the fanbase.
On Wednesday night, the Wildcats we came to love in the Bahamas finally started finding their groove again.
In a 96-58 victory over North Dakota, Kentucky kicked it into high gear defensively, holding the Fighting Hawks 39 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. The Cats also forced 12 steals, 20 turnovers, and blocked five shots.
If you ask Kentucky head coach John Calipari, it just felt good to finally get things going on that end of the floor, especially in the forced turnover department.
“There were a couple plays in the post where we just got scored on and I’m like come on now,” he said. “But I liked the fact that we turned somebody over finally, that I’ve gone back to old school, here’s how we’re doing this, and I’m holding them accountable.”
Calipari said he made it clear, if his players don’t listen to him or take shortcuts like they had been doing to start the season, they’re not playing. He assumed the team was ready for advanced teaching, but after a rough start to the year, he had to go back to the drawing board to get the Wildcats ready both physically and mentally.
“I told them, you don’t do what I’m asking you to do, I’m making it very clear, you’re choosing not to, you’re going to hear it and then deal with it,” he said. “And if you’re afraid to play because I get on you, then don’t play. I mean, the best thing that happened to us is, me personally, not these kids, figuring out that I had moved way too fast and beyond what they really knew or knew how to play. I thought well, they know this stuff, and any time I think that it’s, I make a mistake.”
Kentucky sophomore forward PJ Washington said practice this week has been entirely focused on defense. After finding that perfect recipe against North Dakota, he expects his teammates to stick to that and keep forcing the issue going forward.
“That’s all we’ve been working on in practice,” Washington said. “We just have to focus on staying in, and then going out to contest three-pointers and force guys into steals. We did a lot of great trapping today, forced a lot of turnovers as well. That’s our identity going forward, we need to stick to that.”
Freshman wing Keldon Johnson said he’s not worried about the offense at all, he understands the talent they have there. By establishing an identity and setting the tone early on defense, everything else will fall into place later.
“We took defense personally tonight, and that’s how it should be every night,” he said. “We need to set that tone every night. When we play defense, it leads to easy offense. … That’s just been our emphasis, we don’t worry about offense, we just care about defense. The offense will come.”
Freshman shooting guard Tyler Herro, known strictly for his skillset on offense, agreed with Johnson’s analysis. By doing his part on offense, the easy shots came on offense and he was able to finally find his groove.
“Tonight, being active on defense, not relying on my shot, more so start defense and play with the game,” Herro said. “I was playing with the flow of the game, not forcing anything.”
What specifically is Herro working on to improve on defense? Working the passing lanes, which led to a team-high five steals on the night.
“Just going out and playing active with my hands to get deflections, stuff like that,” he said.
It’ll be a while before we see the team’s true improvements on defense against a legitimate opponent, as the Cats don’t have a ranked matchup until December 22 when they take on No. 7 North Carolina in Chicago. Nonetheless, their defensive effort on Wednesday night was certainly a necessary step in the right direction.