The array of dunks, 3-pointers and fast break buckets UK had in its final tune-up for the 2011-12 season could likely win a lot of ball games for the Cats this year alone, but it's the defense they that should give UK fans the biggest reason for optimism. Even as their lead ballooned to as many as 89 points, the Wildcats maintained their defensive intensity throughout
With four freshmen among its top seven players, the fact that the Wildcats have grasped the importance of defense to their eventual fate is quite an achievement. It's also a tribute to UK's four returners.
"They understand," head coach John Calipari said. "They've got guys of this team, three of them, really four of them, that were in the Final Four and know you have to have a certain toughness. You have to have a grittiness to you. You have to defend and rebound."
UK held the visiting Maroon Tigers to just 15-for-66 (22.7-percent) from the field and forced 26 turnovers. The Wildcats also blocked seven shots and grabbed an astounding 17 steals on Monday, but that defensive approach wasn't fully there in UK's other exhibition against Transylvania.
With five days between Transylvania and Morehouse, Calipari turned the spotlight on defense.
"The defensive side of the ball, we worked on that so much in practice and you could tell," sophomore guard Jarrod Polson said. "We were stunting more on defense and bringing more energy overall."
In many ways, it was the Wildcats' defense that drove their offense. While UK settled for a number of shots from deep last week in the half-court, but UK was flying up and down the floor off turnovers and rebounds, scoring 49 points off turnovers and 33 in the fast break.
"That's why we got so many easy baskets," freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "We started out 24-of-24 because we got straight lay-ins."
Even though he's only a freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the driving force behind UK's defensive effort yet again. He may have had only 11 points and five rebounds, but the effort with which he plays leaves his teammates with a difficult choice.
"When you watch him, it forces you as a player to raise your level of intensity because if you don't you stand out like, 'Why isn't he playing? Why is he playing cool? He acts like it doesn't matter,' " Calipari said. "And the other dude is diving on the floor, talking, jumping, stabbing, blocking, sprinting, driving. It makes you either mad or you say, 'I got to step this up, I got to step on the gas.' "
One player who is making the choice to step on the gas is point guard Marquis Teague.
"I think what's happened is Marquis Teague plays that way, too, now," Calipari said. "It's nice to have two out there that way."
Also working in Calipari's favor is the dynamic shot-blocking presence Anthony Davis adds to the mix. UK was a good shot-blocking team a year ago, but Davis takes things to another level.
"What this team has, the added thing, is we can block shots," Calipari said. "Last year we blocked shots, which is amazing. Terrence (Jones), Darius (Miller) and Josh (Harrellson) blocked shots last year, but now they're coming at you different ways."
Davis exemplifies the kind of length that is forcing Calipari to consider implementing something on defense he has resisted nearly all of his coaching career.
"I hate to say this," Calipari said. "We look like we may be a pretty good zone team when I go big on this team. With Anthony (Davis) is on that one wing, you're not getting a shot off."
Calipari toyed with a big lineup featuring Davis, Wiltjer, Jones, Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb utilizing that zone. Rest assured, UK will remain a base man-to-man defensive team, but the 2-3 zone could make cameo appearances.
"As a change up defense, this could be something we look to," Calipari said. "I doubt it. But we might."
Regardless what kind of defense the Cats play or don't play, Calipari is happy with the progression his team showed Monday.
"We were better," Calipari said. "That's what I was looking for. I was looking for more intensity."