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From the Pressbox: Defense crucial to UK's fate

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Last Saturday, the game preview story in a local paper in Auburn contained an interesting quote from one of head coach Tony Barbee's players. He said Auburn's post-Christmas improvement coincided with the players understanding they needed to play harder game in and game out, adding that since Barbee didn't have to "coach effort," he could instead focus on the Xs and Os.

After Kentucky overcame a rowdy crowd and that improved Auburn team with a 22-point road win, I asked John Calipari about that quote and how it applied to his young team.

"Exactly what we're talking about," Calipari answered in the postgame interview on the UK-IMG radio network. "I said (to my staff) prior to the game, 'I don't want to coach as much in this game. I want the players to make calls. We're going to let them know what we want run but I want them talking to each other more. I want to do less.' It becomes grueling as a coach when you're coaching effort and you're coaching every bounce of the ball. I'm not going to do it. One, it doesn't work over the long haul. At some point, this has got to be their team and they've got to run with it. I think we're getting closer but we've got another tough one (at Alabama)."

This was one of the Wildcats' most complete performances of the season, as they out-shot and out-rebounded Auburn.

"We just needed to start seeing the fruits of the labor," Calipari noted. "You got to start having some hope that we're going to be fine."

And if the Wildcats can continue their improvement on the defensive end of the court, they might be better than "fine."  

SI.com's Luke Winn posted an article this week about the relationship of defensive efficiency stats to postseason success. Looking back over the past decade of those numbers, Winn notes that "only five teams ranked worse than 25th in defensive efficiency have made the Final Four and only two of those were outside the top 50 (VCU in '11 and Marquette in '03)."

Given that kenpom.com currently ranks UK 20th in DE, albeit against a softer schedule than last year, it bodes well for the current Cats to peak in March, provided we see the same kind of passion to guard opponents that we saw at Auburn (which will be coupled with the shot-blocking prowess of Nerlens Noel).

"They're not as far along as I thought they would be. Defensively, I don't see them fighting every possession like that team did last year but I saw signs of it when I watched the tape of Auburn game," observed ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes on Monday's "Leach Report" radio show. "As a coach, you either fix the problem or you accept the problem and he (Calipari) is not going to accept the problem. The only way they have a chance to make a run in March is to become a really, really good defensive team - and the pieces are there."

Dykes noted that Noel probably leads the nation in combined blocks and steals and is capable of being the engine that drives aBig Blue resurgence.

"I think that's who Kentucky builds its team around. I think he's got a motor and a toughness and a mean streak about him that this team needs. To me, he's the one guy that consistently shows it and it needs to be infectious. He needs to be the leader of this team and let everybody else feed off him," said Dykes.

"I think they showed some fight and some toughness (at Auburn). Not 40 minutes but I saw more of it than I did in the Tennessee win," he continued.  "They're far from a finished product. They still give up too many straight-line drives and guys get to the rim on them. I think the key versus Alabama is to not turn the ball over. They can really pressure you. One thing Alabama doesn't have is size inside and Kentucky can take advantage of that. I think there's a lot of pressure on Alabama's perimeter game to come through."

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