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Practice report: Cats getting defensive

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Madness 2009 UK Basketball 74.jpgWeeks before John Calipari's team took the floor for Big Blue Madness, the official start to the 2009-10 men's basketball season, the first-year UK head coach prophesized that his team would be one of the better defensive teams in the country.

Calipari used the term "great" to describe what he hopes will be a swarming defense.

"To be a good defensive team, you have to have players capable of playing defense and you better have a good rebounding team, bottom line," Calipari said in August, before his team had even come together for drill instruction. "It's not me saying our system of play is the best defensive system. You win because you have terrific players. If you want to win national championships, then you have national championship level players.

"But we have great quickness and size. We have length at the wings. We have a physical toughness that you need. I think we should be a great rebounding team and shot blocking team. That lends to great defense."

For all the talk about the Dribble Drive Motion Offense and its potential proficiency on the court, Calipari has maintained belief that this year's edition of the Cats will be one of the better defensive teams in the country. They will work primarily on offense, he said, but he's hoping they will rank near the top of all the major defensive categories.

On Tuesday, for the first time since this writer has been watching UK practices, Calipari focused extensively on the defensive end. The Cats focused on their defensive technique and sets for about an hour-and-15-minute chunk of the two-and-a-half-hour long practice.

The goal?

"We're going to be the best defensive team in the country," Calipari told his players. "People are not going to want to play us."

After a week and a half of practice, Calipari would be the first to tell you that they are not there yet. To achieve those lofty goals, Calipari stressed two things to his team when playing defense: One, Calipari said they're going to have to work together and rely on one another. Two, they will have to play with absolute desperation.

Let's dig a little deeper into each facet.

When stressing defense, Calipari wants a number of individual things. He wants his players to get out on screens, to communicate and to get their hands up.

Calipari pointed out that his team is long and athletic and needs to take advantage of its size. He singled out 6-foot Eric Bledsoe, who has a 6-7 wingspan. Calipari said if he keeps his hands up and active, he can play like a 6-5 man on the defensive end.

But, more than anything, Calipari wants his players working as a unit, encouraging each other to go harder and faster.

"The only way any of this works is by working together," Calipari shouted to his players.

During one drill where the Cats' defensive unit tried forcing the offense into shooting the ball as late as possible in the shot clock, junior forward Josh Harrellson cut off the pass at the top of the perimeter, diving to the floor to get the ball.

After the Cats won the possession, senior forward Perry Stevenson, Harrellson's defensive teammate, walked off the court without hardly saying a word. Calipari made a beeline for Stevenson and told him to literally go over and hug his teammate for his effort.

"This is my job is to get you guys to love this drill and one another and to take pride in playing defense," Calipari said.

Moments later, Calipari singled out freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins for never giving up. It's what he termed, "playing with absolute desperation."

On a defensive switch, Cousins lost track of his man on the backdoor and the Cats hit Harrellson with a wide-open look underneath the basket. Harrellson appeared to have an easy two-hand dunk, but Cousins sprinted from about seven feet away and rejected the shot off the glass.

Calipari, donned in a gray jacket and black sweatpants, started jumping up and down. In this writer's honest opinion, I've never seen him more excited on the practice court this year.

"That's what I'm talking about," Calipari screamed.

It's that effort and that never-say-die attitude Calipari is hoping to push on his team as it prepares for the season and the Blue/White Game on Wednesday in Rupp Arena. If the Cats can continue to play defense like they did in the second half of Tuesday's practice, they'll have the total package.

"We'll go from an offensive team that goes crazy to an offensive team that goes crazy and shuts you out," Calipari said.

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