John Calipari’s best teams have thrived on defense, which has made this team’s struggles even more frustrating. Through six games, the Cats rank 350th out of the 351 teams in college basketball in three-point defense and 279th in field-goal defense, a pill so tough to swallow that Calipari is hitting the reset button.
“What I told them yesterday is, here’s what happened to me personally. I’m expecting them to be farther than they’re ready to be,” Cal said. “I literally gotta start coaching the games as though they’re practice until we figure it out.”
Calipari likened this team’s defensive struggles to those of last year’s squad, admitting that he got so caught up in their performance in the Bahamas he didn’t notice how bad things were on that side of the ball.
“I’m just telling you, I’ve come to — for me, reflecting and looking and saying how do I do this, it’s going to be a process,” he said. “I should have known this early. I should have seen it in the summer. I got enamored like everybody else and now, it’s, how do we get better defensively?”
Right now, that means going through tape and hitting pause to point out when players are in the correct stance, or repeating drills in practice to hold players accountable for their mistakes.
“We don’t stay in a stance. We don’t bounce. We don’t anticipate and we don’t play with hands like we should because of our length. And we’ve been working on it. It’s hard for us to stay in front of people because we come up out of a stance. We’re never ready to go. We’re never anticipating what the guy is doing. We’re never helping the helper.”
Calipari said there’s a shortcut to getting young guys to play defense, but he’s not willing to take it…yet.
“What a lot of people do, if you have to teach a lot of young guys, you just go zone. You just say, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to play zone.’ I just don’t want to be that guy. And maybe I will be.”
From listening to Calipari’s remarks today, you would think Kentucky is 1-5 instead of 5-1; that’s how discouraged he is by his team’s defensive struggles. With three sophomores and a fifth-year senior, we all expected Kentucky to be past square one, but that’s clearly not the case.
“The question I have is, is there ever going to be an easy year for me?” he joked. “Like just one year, be a team that I can sit there and — every year is a grind and sometimes I forget.”
“When they were in high school and there were stories written about them and their game, did it ever talk about how they defended or did it just put their points in the game?” Cal said. “And then they’re here. And then they’re not here a long time. And then you’ve got a short period of time. And then I get to where I’m frustrated and then I’m not having fun coaching and I’ve got — to be in this job and do the job, you’ve gotta have a ball every day. You must have fun coaching. You almost have to look at, this is where we are, accept it, and let’s move from here and just get better.”
In fact, he’s boiled down the motto to something even simpler.
“The standard defensively: let’s just be better than yesterday.”