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Calipari to Cats: “If you can’t guard, you are not playing”


There’s nothing more entertaining than a high-scoring basketball game, especially for University of Kentucky fans who love fast break basketball.

However, UK coach John Calipari is a believer in defense and was not thrilled with the high-scoring Blue-White Game Wednesday that produced a 126-104 win for the more experienced Blue squad led by Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb.

“We could win games scoring that many points, but I couldn’t stand it. I am a defensive coach. I pride myself on having our guys play great defense,” said Calipari at the Southeastern Conference Media Day.

“If we’re to be what everybody thinks we are, we’re going to have to be special defensively. That means you can’t just give up lanes to the rim. That means you stop splits, you contest shots and then you rebound like crazy. One team (in the Blue-White Scrimmage) had 24 offensive rebounds. The other had 14 offensive rebounds. That can’t be who we are.”
Calipari has not had a team allow opponents to shoot over 40 percent for a season since the 2003-04 season at Memphis.

His teams annually rank in the top 10 in field goal percentage defense. When the Cats seemed to come out of nowhere last year to reach the Final Four, it was mainly due to a defense that did not allow over 70 points in the last 11 games and held six opponents to 60 points or less.

Calipari said his team has “focused a lot on offense and it shows” in the defense. However, he’s convinced UK can be a “good pressing team” this season.

“There is a lot of stuff left to do. I get a headache thinking about what we have to do,” he said. “We have to teach fundamentals, the basics because those kids are so young which puts us behind in pick and roll defense, post defense, press offense, press defense. We are behind.”

Yet that won’t change his approach to defense even with a team loaded with projected NBA draft picks.

“You have to demand if you don’t defend, you are not playing. Our guys know it. Last year we were a terrific defensive team and we played three freshmen. The year before we were, and we played four freshmen. It can be done, but they are not going to be good early in the year,” Calipari said.

“It’s very simple. If you can’t guard, you are not playing. You better figure that out pretty quickly. If you are breaking down defensively, you are immediately coming out of the game. I don’t budge on that.”

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  1. Ben

    I love Cal’s way of coaching! He builds up their confidence on the offensive end and then starts working on defense for the rest of the season. If you want to play, you had better play defense. Other coaches concentrate on defense first and let the offense come about on its own! I think that young players sometimes get so frustrated on defense, that it effects their offense. Each coach has his own system, but I like Cal’s best! Oh, what a year this will be!

  2. grant

    Hey if the cats stop splits at the point of attack and the other teams are limited to very little breakdowns on behalf of the cats , this will be a juggernaut on the d-end of the court.

  3. Juan4UK

    Cal knows kids. It makes perfect sense: when they get to campus what do they want? They all want to learn the offense, every kid wants to learn to shoot and pass and run and go. So, he gives it to them, here you go!! He gets that out of the way, the kids are happy and then they are ready to learn and Cal then hits em with the real stuff, the defense. Damn if he doesn’t know kids. Their attention span he uses to his advantage. No kids can fully concentrate properly if he is always, in the back of his mind, wanting to learn the offense. So Cal simply gets it out of the way…. Here is a piece of your dessert. Now, if you want the rest of your dessert, you have to eat your veggies.

    1. larryvaught

      Great stuff Juan

  4. Rodney

    This team has the athletes to be a very good defensive team. But defense comes as a result of effort and a “want” to. Cal is a master at getting kids to give the effort on defense and making them want to play shutdown D. I think this team is motivated, the veterans will make sure of that, so I don’t worry that the defense will come. Time will tell though, I guess.

  5. King Ghidora

    Exactly right Rodney. Most players who make it to UK are great offensive players but they are actually discouraged from playing defense in high school. They are too valuable to their teams to lose playing time due to foul problems so they don’t play hard nose defense nearly as hard. In college things are way different. The must play D if they expect to be good.

    Players generally have a natural ability to score or they wouldn’t be at UK. I can’t remember the last player taken for defensive abilities at UK. Well I can but I like to forget about that era. ;) Going back to Rupp the players were brought in for their scoring ability and taught to play defense, which is largely effort. And athletic players can usually learn to be great defenders if they are pushed into it. I remember seeing some great shooters become really good defenders during all of my years of watching UK. Sometimes it took figuring out exactly what sort of defense a set of players could do well. For example the Super Kittens greatly improved their game when Hall discovered they could play a 3/4 press very well. They played the passing lanes in a zone press that was sometimes 3/4 and sometimes half court. They trapped and they anticipated but mostly they hustled. They weren’t really great straight up defenders but they were smart and they were willing to work hard. That’s the kind of thing that helped them beat maybe the best college basketball team of all time, the 1975 Indiana team.

    Cal is great at motivating players to play defense. His poster child for “you better play d” is Liggins of course. His example will be effective for several more years IMO. And having a bench full of talent makes it a lot more effective when you threaten to bench someone. :)

    1. larryvaught

      Cal makes it pretty easy to understand

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