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Lipsitz using new tool in UK's transformation

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Jon Lipsitz has led UK to a 8-2-0 start to the 2012 season. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Jon Lipsitz has led UK to a 8-2-0 start to the 2012 season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Following Jon Lipsitz on Twitter, there's no way of knowing what you're going to get. He interacts with his players. He recounts beating one of his two young sons in a video game. He gives his opinions on sports other than his own, Kentucky or otherwise.

Sometimes, Lipsitz can make his followers forget he's a women's soccer coach, at least until the day or two following his team's weekend matches. He's always made a habit of sharing his thoughts on how the Wildcats played, but this season, his public evaluations have taken a statistical turn.

"Interesting stats from this weekend," Lipsitz tweeted on Tuesday. "Friday (in a 3-2 loss at Arkansas) completed 349 passes to 149 for opponent, yet lost and deserved to because (UK) did not win the box.

"Sunday (in a 2-1 overtime win at LSU) set all-time records for passes and completion rates: 451 passes at 83.1 (percent). Both are new records."

Lipsitz 140-character-or-less postgame debriefs certainly reflect UK's increased emphasis on possession this season, but where do those numbers come from? Do he and his assistants pore over game tape for hours on end, meticulously noting every detail?

Clearly not, because it's hard to imagine Lipsitz having time to talk UK basketball otherwise.

The statistics come from software developed by Prozone, a United Kingdom-based company that pioneered performance analysis in soccer and has clients like Manchester United and Real Madrid. Using cameras placed around the pitch, the software tracks the movement of players from both teams and the ball, generating statistical, graphical and video representations of the action.

UK, along with every other team in the Southeastern Conference, had used the software before this season, but just a less robust version. Recognizing its impact, Lipsitz and first-year men's soccer coach Johan Cedergren approached athletic department administration about making an investment in Prozone 3, the highest level of the software. According to Lipsitz, UK is the only school in nation make Prozone 3 available to both its men's and women's soccer teams.

"It's just great support by our administration when we went to them and Johan and I said this is really important," Lipsitz said. "It has changed the way we analyze both our play and our opponents' play."

Throughout his time as a collegiate coach, Lipsitz has relied on instincts and limited tools to evaluate the way his team plays. The new software is allowing him and his staff to go far beyond that.

"I think having a balance between us subjectively telling them what is important and showing them objectively this is who we are and who you are is nice," Lipsitz said. "I think you need both."

That doesn't mean he throws a mountain of video and statistics at his players. After taking a look at his own team's play and the opponents, Lipsitz and his coaches distill the information down to what they believe to be its essence.

"I want to decide what the team needs to see," Lipsitz said. "We all interpret things differently, on paper or visually. So we break down the film, we break down the stats and then we decide what we want our team to see. This paints a picture of who this team is and this paints a picture of how we're playing."

In no way has the software been more valuable than the way it has helped the Cats as they've evolved into a possession team. Over his first three years in Lexington, UK was primarily a team that relied on counterattack and the long ball, culminating in an NCAA Tournament berth in 2011.

But all along, Lipsitz knew he wanted to mold Kentucky into a more technical team that won matches with sound passing and consistent possession. With a talented class of newcomers arriving this season, the Cats have undergone exactly that kind of transformation.

During the preseason, Lipsitz knew his team would take steps in that direction, but even he has been surprised by the progress. And with his new favorite toy, he can quantify just how big the strides have been.

"I'm supposed do coach speak right now and say, 'Oh no, I absolutely knew it,' " Lipsitz said. "It has not surprised me that we're better than we were before. We are more technical. We are emphasizing that our players have to be more skillful to get on the field, so it doesn't surprise me that we're better. But when we're making over 400 passes a game at over an 80-percent clip, that's another level."

The play of freshmen like midfielder Courtney Raetzman, Kelli Hubly and Cara Ledman has been instrumental in that, but Lipsitz believes two veterans are truly at the heart of UK's evolution. Seniors Natalie Horner and Alyssa Telang have been Kentucky's defensive anchors all season, but with the new approach, they've started the attack too.

"I really think that the key to it has been that we put two such technical soccer players at center back," Lipsitz said. "It's not right or wrong, but I think most teams' style is to have their center backs smash the ball because they're in trouble. We have our center backs and our defensive center mids set the most play for us."

UK's new style of play will get its sternest test yet on Friday night. At 7 p.m., the Cats (8-2-0, 3-1-0 SEC) will play host to No. 6/8 Texas A&M (10-1-0, 4-0-0 SEC). Lipsitz doesn't need a computer to tell him the Aggies are really good, but Prozone does prove to him just how interesting the matchup could be.

"(Texas A&M) is the exact foil for who we are in that they are going to apply so much pressure to our backline, to our midfield that they're going to disrupt our ability to play soccer the way we like to play," Lipsitz said. "I think these games are great because it's two very different styles that both are incredibly effective."

Lipsitz watches the Aggies play and thinks back to his days at Charlotte, when the 49ers would use superior athleticism to overwhelm Atlantic 10 opponents. On the season, Texas A&M has outscored its opponents 19-3 with its high-pressure style, but the Wildcats aren't going to blink.

"We're going to have the courage that we're going to knock the ball around and we're going to play and it's going to be hard," Lipsitz said. "It's going to be harder to be us than against any other team that we've played because Texas A&M makes it hard to do anything."

Win or lose, Lipsitz will be going right back to the computer next week.

"If we're successful against A&M, that's going to tell us something and we're going to look at the film and say, 'This is what we did that made us successful,' " Lipsitz said. "If we're unsuccessful, we're going to say, 'Here's what they did to us and we've got to get better.' Either way, we're going to work on getting better."

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