CRAWFORD | Double the defense -- Kentucky puts clamps on Vandy f - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Double the defense -- Kentucky puts clamps on Vandy for second straight win

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Kentucky's Tyler Ulis. AP photo Kentucky's Tyler Ulis. AP photo
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — For most of this season, the University of Kentucky basketball team played defense as if it were an elective.
The past two games, the Wildcats have been playing it like a requirement.
As it did at Arkansas Thursday night, Kentucky threw a blanket over Vanderbilt’s perimeter shooters, locked an opponent out of the paint for long stretches, and wore down the visiting Commodores 76-57.
It was a second straight wire-to-wire, hard-nosed effort for the No. 23 Wildcats (15-4, 5-2), who had been chided for most of the season by head coach John Calipari for a lack of toughness.
Calipari tried a little something after the Wildcats coughed up a 12-point lead in losing at Auburn last Saturday. He held a scrimmage in practice, but took point guard Tyler Ulis away from his starters and put him on a reserve unit.
The Ulis-led reserves won the game. And Calipari, with trademark sarcasm, let the starting unit that had lost hear about it. The next day he did the same thing, but this time the starters won, played with attitude, with an edge, and with a little bit of anger.
They’ve been doing it ever since.
“That was the best that anybody’s played against us,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team also has lost to Kansas (by 7) and at Purdue (by 13). “They were impressive today. I thought they were impressive the other night at Arkansas. . . . Both ends, tough, hard, fast, aggressive, confident. That was good playing.”
The defense has been keyed by individual improvement from two players. Jamal Murray has gotten better defensively, while at the same time taking better care of the ball and reining in his game on offense. His attention to intangibles is evident in his line — 3 steals, a blocked shot, 2 assists and no turnovers. He also had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. (Click the box score to enlarge)
Derek Willis couldn’t get on the court early in the season because his defense is non-existent. Now, he’s starting. And playing major minutes. He’s not a lock-down defender. But he’s solid enough to play, and on Saturday he also led the Wildcats in rebounding for a second straight game with 9, to go with seven points.
“I thought we really guarded,” Calipari said. “I thought our execution offensively was pretty good. Low turnovers. I thought Jamal played to win today. Every play was a winning play. . . . Alex (Poythress) was doing his thing. And all of a sudden, Derek Willis, I told him, ‘Derek, you can miss shots when you rebound and block shots and defend. You don’t have to make every shot.’”
Kentucky outscored Vanderbilt 34-18 in the paint, but that margin was 18-4 in the first half, when Kentucky grabbed a 13 point lead before going in with a 37-27 lead at the break.
Vanderbilt made just 3 of 15 shots over the game’s final 8:49. Kentucky had runs of 12-2 and 9-1 in the second half, leading by as many as 23 points.
For the first time this season, UK had at least three players score 16 points or more in a game. Tyler Ulis led the way with 21. Poythress finished the game with 16.
So what has led to all this?
The team has taken on more of Ulis’ personality, for one thing. And for another, Calipari is leaning a little more on Ulis for input on the team and what makes it go.
“He’s basically like having a little coach out there,” Poythress said of Ulis.
Said Calipari: “We're trying to figure out how we have to play. And a lot of it is him talking to me, what do we need to do here?”
At halftime, Calipari asked Ulis if he wanted to try some of the high ball-screen action that worked well at Arkansas.
“And Tyler said no, they're too tight,” Calipari said. “That's when we went to some high angle and other ball screens where we could make plays. We even did some drag screens in transition, just, again, to figure out how do we play and how does he keep guys involved, which is what he's been doing. Tyler had a heck of a game today.”
Calipari is fine with that kind of input. And he’s really fine with the kind of production Ulis is giving the team.
Little by little, the Wildcats are improving. In some ways, the Duke win early in the season was fool’s gold. The Wildcats beat Duke by 11 and everyone thought, “Uh oh, here we go again. The juggernaut is revving up.”
In reality, that was a game against a team that likes to spread the court and could not match Kentucky at the guard spot. And it was early. It’s still an impressive win, but it wasn’t a great indicator of where the team really was, or where it needed to go.
Now, after some floundering, the Wildcats have improved in back-to-back games. And they have the beginnings of an identity. Great perimeter defense. Great point guard leadership. Team defense on the interior. And some young pieces, who, if they keep moving forward, will make this team a tough out at tournament time.
“Anybody that thinks this team is not getting better, you're not watching,” Calipari said. “Dickie V came in and talked to me, said you know this is one of your teams that's not getting better. I said, so you're not watching college basketball that much. Like, what are you talking about?
“Well, the Duke game (Vitale said). The Duke game, they spread the court out. It was a different game. You got a lot of people packing and I'm trying to figure out when they do certain things how do we play. This team is getting better. Derek Willis is better. Tyler better. Jamal's better. Isaiah (Briscoe) is better. They're all better. Skal (Labissiere) is better. Alex is better. Marcus Lee's got to get back to where he was, but he's now starting to get better. If we don't play with energy, if we don't have enthusiasm -- I keep telling them refuse to lose. You may run out of time. But it's how you play. Refuse to lose. Dive, take charges. Make plays. Don't have any thought other than I'm not losing. That's where I'm trying to get these guys. And we're slowly, slowly getting there.”
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