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Coach Cal taking nothing off table in seeking improvement, not even zone

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John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats will host Tennessee at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in Rupp Arena. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats will host Tennessee at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in Rupp Arena. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
When discussing the prospect of playing zone defense, John Calipari doesn't even make an effort to hide his disdain.

"I hate zone," Calipari said. "I hate it."

His opinion might stem from a notion he conceived as a player and young assistant about how basketball should be played, but he has plenty of evidence to back it up too. Playing man-to-man almost exclusively, Calipari-coached teams have had more than their fair share of success.

"We've won a lot of games, a lot of league championships, a lot of league tournament championships, a lot of NCAA games playing man. ... I know that's the best way to do it," Calipari said.

There aren't many things Coach Cal is more certain of than the superiority of man defense, but one of them is causing him to consider going against one of his core beliefs.

"But I also know, more than anything else, I want this team to have a chance to win," Calipari said. "So I've got to look at everything...and be honest about it and not worry about me because it's not about me. This is about this team."

In Kentucky's home loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, the Wildcats spent extended time in an attacking zone defense. The move was prompted in part by the play of Elston Turner, the Aggie who lit up the Cats for 40 points. Coach Cal had tried having Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and even Willie Cauley-Stein guard Turner, but nothing worked.

In past years, the answer would have been simple. If a perimeter player like Turner caught fire against last year's team, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist raised his hand and asked for the assignment. Two seasons ago, it was DeAndre Liggins. The year before it was any one of Liggins, John Wall or Eric Bledsoe. This season, no such defensive stopper has emerged.

"When a team gets on a run, if you don't have a guy that just says, 'Let me guard him,' that's a difference," Calipari said.

Coach Cal mentioned Archie Goodwin first when he was asked about who could become that kind of stopper, and Goodwin certainly tried on Saturday. After Turner had poured in 25 first-half points, Goodwin drew the assignment to begin the second. For 10 minutes, Goodwin held him in check. Turner hit just two free throws during the stretch, missing both of his field-goal attempts. Unfortunately, that's when fatigue kicked in and Turner scored 15 points over the final 9:35.

"He should have been out and I left him in there trying to finish out the game," Calipari said. "The last five minutes, we're up four and he just dies on screens and gets beat and he couldn't sustain it. Well he shouldn't have been in the game that long. That's not his fault, that's my fault."

Zone could help combat that.

"The zone we're playing is a real active one, trying to just get them to run around and be probably more active than they would be if they were playing man-to-man," Calipari said.

According to Calipari, the Cats have practiced zone over the last two weeks more than all of his past teams combined. However, there's no way of knowing whether UK (10-5, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) will play the zone extensively when Tennessee (8-6, 0-2 SEC) comes to town for a matchup at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

One thing that is a given though is that Calipari will be looking for something closer to complete "buy in" from his team. That was Coach Cal's catchphrase of choice on Monday and it means he wants the Cats to first understand their roles, then commit to them fully.

"It may not be the way you want to play and most likely is not the way you've ever played, but the only way you can really trust each other is you know what everybody is doing," Calipari said. "I'm on the basketball court and I know what the other four guys are doing because they've bought in to how we're playing as a team."

It's only that way that the Cats can avoid the crippling runs that have felled them in their five losses this season. UK's highly touted freshmen didn't expect to lose that many games all season, let alone two games into conference play. So, has that led to a newfound sense of urgency among the players?

"There should be," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We'll find out today. We didn't have a contact practice (Sunday). I feel like guys were focused in the film session though. But there should definitely be more sense of urgency."

If Cauley-Stein is right, the Texas A&M loss might just be the "crisis" that Coach Cal always talks about UK needing in order "bring about change." But then again, it may not be. UK is fighting habits formed over years, and that process takes time. Calipari, though, has been through this before and he has an idea of what the finished product will look like.

"If it isn't happening, if you don't change, if you don't recognize and then begin to change, there's not going to be a change on the court," Calipari said. "You just keep getting beat. Again, my vision is there's no one late in the season that's going to want to play this team - if we get it right."

Whether that theoretical version of the Cats plays zone, not even Calipari knows.

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