By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky has already lost two home games and not only is unranked, but for the first time in coach John Calipari’s four years at UK did not even receive a vote in the Associated Press poll this week.
Yet Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin made the Wildcats sound much more formidable going into tonight’s game than the Wildcats seem to have been, especially considering they lost by 11 points to Texas A&M at home Saturday.
“Kentucky speaks for itself. Talented across the board, good length on the block, perimeter guys that are quick, athletic and can score the ball. We have to do a really good job of keeping them off the glass, making their shot attempts tough, boxing out, making them work for possessions and not allow those guys to get out in transition and make easy plays,” said Martin.
While Elston Turner torched UK for 40 points Saturday, Martin insisted that UK’s defense looked solid to him.
“I think you start first and foremost with (Nerlens) Noel, the way he blocks shots and also (Willie Cauley-Stein). You got two guys 6-11, 7-feet tall, but also mobile, can switch out on different guys,” Martin said. “They alter shots, they get rebounds, they can move in ball screens, so you got to keep those guys where they’re moving constantly. You can’t allow those guys to sit around the rim and make plays and block a lot of shots and make you alter shots. So you got to get those guys out of their comfort zone.
“And I think even with their guards, they’re quick and athletic. You got to move that ball and then attack the rim. I don’t think you can come down one pass and then go inside when their defense is set because they’re tough to beat that way.”
Calipari said Monday that UK would have to “play its best” to win tonight’s game.
“We’re playing a Tennessee team that’s dropped a couple, but when you watch them play, their perimeter play, obviously they got some guards back. (Jordan) McCrae is really, really talented. Obviously (Jarnell) Stokes is a beast, the player that can score on you inside. I would imagine they’re coming in here hyped up,” Calipari said.
“Tennessee is good. I don’t care what anybody says — ‘Well, they’ve lost this game.’ Let me tell you, I just watched the tape. McRae can score with the best of them and Stokes inside. The other guys, they’ve got veterans. They are a good team. It’s another game in that list of games that you’re going to have to play. This is a big game. Stokes says, ‘We’re winning in Rupp Arena. We’re not losing in Rupp Arena.’ All right, how do you take on that challenge? Because I imagine he will be ready to play.”
Calipari wants to have players take pride in making defensive stops like DeAndre Liggins and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did the last two seasons.
“They took pride in it. Just said, ‘It’s not acceptable, and I’m playing you and I’m not fouling you and I’m gonna… .’ There’s a pride in that. And you’ve got to take that on as who you want to be. Both of those guys have driven that trait to the NBA,” Calipari said. “(You’re used to) shooting all the balls, going at your pace. ‘I’m tired, so I’m not going to go hard. There’s no sub for me.’ It’s a process. And that’s why I said I’m not upset with the guys. I know what they’re going through,” Calipari said. “I’d like to have won more games, but this is the process. My issue is, recognize it, now let’s begin to change. As long as that’s happening, we’re good. If it isn’t happening — if you don’t change, if you don’t recognize and then begin to change — there’s not going to be a change on the court. You keep getting beat.
“Now if there is a change, my vision is, there’s no one late in this season is going to want to play this team. If we get it right. But right now it appears everybody wants to play this team.”
Calipari said freshman Archie Goodwin could be the one to develop into a stopper as he did at least slow Turner down the second half. But the coach said he might also go to a zone defense that he’s used only briefly this season.
“We’re trying some different things, some things I’ve not done in my career that we’re doing. I played more zone in that game (Texas A&M) than I have since I’ve been the coach here. Maybe that’s something I go to,” he said. “We’ve been working on it. We’ve spent more time on zone defense in the last two weeks than we have in my entire coaching career.”
Calipari says he hates a zone defense and has been successful playing man-to-man defense.
“So, no, I know that’s the best way to do it,” he said of the man defense. “But I also know, more than anything else, I want this team to have a chance to win. So I’ve got to look at everything and say, ‘How?’ and be honest about it and not worry about me, because it’s not about me. This is about this team.”
Another worry against the Vols could be rebounding because UK had trouble keeping Texas A&M off the offensive board.
“We’re going to have trouble. That’s one of the issues we’ll talk about and deal with. You’ve got today’s practice to get ready for it. We’ve got to check out better,” Calipari said. “Some of it is you’ve just got to be tougher. You’re going to have to be more physical because those guys get after it.”
Martin felt his team started playing with better effort in Saturday’s loss to Alabama than it had in losses to Memphis and Mississippi.
“I thought after the Alabama game that was the old Tennessee team I was used to seeing from an effort standpoint and competing and we just came up short,” the Tennessee coach said. “So it’s just a case of playing defense the way we’re capable but also being able to put points on the board.”