CRAWFORD | Slow(er) burn: Four keys to Kentucky's 83-58 demolition of Tennessee
Eric Crawford looks at four of the keys to Kentucky's 83-58 win over Tennessee, avenging a January loss to the Volunteers in Knoxville.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — All season, the University of Kentucky basketball team has played with a surplus of talent, but an attention deficit.
Give it a comfortable lead against a good team, and its mind and offense wandered. Sometimes it even happened in close games. On Monday of this week, Wildcats coach John Calipari told reporters he had a fix.
As it turns out, he had a several. Ball movement, much-tougher perimeter defense and a much shorter rotation all played a hand in Kentucky’s most complete effort of the season, an 83-58 demolition of Tennessee Tuesday night in front of a crowd of 24,391 at Rupp Arena. But maybe the biggest was having his team let off the gas just a little bit, and take its time on the offensive end.
All of this has been part of Calipari's "reboot" over the past 10 days and the results may be starting to show. The Wildcats made 10 first-half three-pointers and scored eight of their first 10 field goals from beyond the arc against Tennessee. That certainly helped the aesthetic value of the performance — but that shooting was merely a by-product of other things.
Kentucky improved to 21-5, 11-3 in the Southeastern Conference with the victory. The Wildcats shot 46 percent in the game and went 11-25 from three-point range after their torrid start. They outscored Tennessee 18-0 on the fast break. Malik Monk led the Wildcats with 20 points.
"This is still a work in progress," Calipari said several times while speaking to reporters after the game. "It took us three weeks to get to where we were. If you look at our past five games, we were atrocious. I think now, I have an idea of what I need to do with them. I told them, I was going to be brutal in practice and I'm backing off during the games. . . . I think you see us different defensively. I think you see us different on defense in transition. I think you see us different offensively. Some of the rebooting, you're seeing. And that's part of what we did. . . . But this is only the beginning of what we started 10 days ago."
Getting a lead hasn't been a problem this season. But Calipari said that he is to some degree responsible, because he didn't talk to his players about how to play when they got a lead.
"I worked yesterday, and I'll work again, up 18, how do we play?" Calipari said. "Can I tell you, they didn't know. I said what do you do here? They didn't know. So we went three segments, up 18, four minutes on the clock, how are we going to play? This is what your mindset is. This is how you get to 25. So we're going to keep working."
Here are four keys:
1). BALL MOVEMENT. The reason Kentucky made so many three-pointers, and played with razor-sharp offensive efficiency, was its ball movement. The Wildcats may well have passed up more open shots in this game than they have in a month. On multiple possessions, the ball touched all five players before a shot went up, usually a wide-open three, or a jumper from the short corner, where Derek Willis and Malik Monk wore the Vols out for much of the second half.
"We passed up shots to give a guy a shot," Calipari said. "It's great to see."
Kentucky had 14 assists and 14 turnovers in the loss in Knoxville in January. It had 17 assists Tuesday night, with just seven turnovers.
"It's not just ball movement, it's player movement, too," Calipari said. "You can't just move the ball and stand there, because then it becomes a zone. So we started the game and one of the guys didn't move, so you're out. Then all of a sudden, you saw pass, cut, cut, pass, cut, and all of a sudden it was like the dam -- here we come. It is a work in progress. Our fours can play perimeter basketball."
Isaiah Briscoe didn’t score a first-half point, but he controlled the game offensively anyway. He had five assists without a turnover in the half.
2). SLOWING IT DOWN. The Wildcats slowed the pace of the game a bit. They had 71 possessions in this game. In the January loss, they had 81.
Think about this: The Wildcats scored on the same number of possessions in this game (37) that they did in the two-point loss in January. And another thing to think about: The Wildcats’ average possession in that January loss was 13 seconds. The average possession on Tuesday night was 19 seconds. Playing slower paid big dividends.
Calipari would rather have games in the 80s. At this pace, his defense is helped, and his offense can pick opponents apart.
3). PERIMETER DEFENSE. Kentucky blocked six shots in the game, but it did so because its perimeter defenders did a much better job keeping ballhandlers from driving into the paint. It sounds paradoxical that better defense on the perimeter would shut off points at the basket, but that's exactly what happened for the Wildcats.
Tennessee had 42 points in the paint during its win in January. It managed just 18 on Tuesday. (UK’s points in the paint remained pretty steady — 28 in January, 32 on Tuesday.)
"I thought our defense was as good as its been since the beginning of the year," Calipari said. "I thought we crowded the lane a little bit. I thought we helped, we rotated. . . . We have to continue to do it through scrimmaging and maybe some four-on-four stuff, and get these guys to understand how you truly are helping each other. When you're away from the ball, it's not time to just stop playing, which is what we were doing. And then you looked at our team and kept saying, how are they getting so many layups against us? Well, the guys off the ball were not worried about it. So we're trying to continue to work.
There’s no short cut to this. It’s simply practice. Calipari went to longer practices where he worked mostly on defense. And, as often happens, the offense got sharper almost as a consequence. He's also using a football style coordinator approach. He has assistant coach Tony Barbee working with the defense and assistant Kenny focusing on the offense. During games, he has assigned Payne to judge who is playing with confidence and when he sees a player's confidence sliding, to get him out.
This was a confident -- and competent -- defensive effort on Tuesday, which held Tennessee to its lowest point total of the season.
De’Aaron Fox and Monk kept drivers out of the lane, and when they couldn’t they at least impeded them enough for Bam Adebayo or others to move into position to block shots.
Tennessee had two field goal droughts of more than five minutes in the game. Tennessee going scoreless on fast-break points shows UK’s attention to defense. Alert teams get back.
You saw, at the end of the game, a pretty exhausted bunch of Kentucky starters. Monk fired a rare wide-open airball from midrange. But the reason for that was that they had expended so much effort on the defensive end.
The result wasn’t a high-flying 100-plus point win. But it was a much more comfortable victory that was never in doubt — despite just 1-7 three-point shooting in the second half.
4). A SHORTER ROTATION. For the most part, Calipari used six players, Fox, Monk, Briscoe, Willis, Adebayo and Dominique Hawkins. That’s it. Everyone else got spot duty. That's not necessarily how he wants it to be for the rest of the season, but he made it about who did what was asked in practice, and who put those things into action during the game.
It made for a tired team at the end of the game, it also gave the Wildcats a good offense-defense mix. Willis isn’t going to be a defensive asset. But when he goes 4-7 from three-point range, he more than offsets it.
And even with the shorter rotation, the Wildcats got 31 points off the bench, thanks to Willis and 10 points from Hawkins.
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