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Cats catching on quickly to defense, new officiating guidelines

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James Young had seven steals and a block at the Blue-White Scrimmage on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) James Young had seven steals and a block at the Blue-White Scrimmage on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari has spent an entire offseason talking about the NCAA-mandated increased emphasis on the proper officiating of physical play.

If officials call games the way they are being directed to -- most notably by calling hand-checks and giving the benefit of the doubt to drivers -- Calipari knows college basketball is going to change drastically this season.

After Kentucky's first chance to play in front of a crowd in game-like scenario at Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage, it seems the Cats could thrive under the new guidelines.

"I like the fact that we defended without fouling," Calipari said. "The officials came up, and especially the SEC official (John Hampton), and told me that this is the best I've seen. You've got your hands up, your body in. We don't try to foul anyway. That's not how we play."

In the Blue team's 99-71 victory, referees called just 20 fouls. Eleven players were on the floor for 25 minutes or more, but only Dakari Johnson was whistled for more than three fouls. Nine of those players who played major minutes committed two fouls or fewer.

As a point of reference, the 20 fouls were the fewest called in a Blue-White Scrimmage under Calipari, tying the 2009 mark when officials still called the game more liberally. Thirty-one fouls were called in 2012, 27 in 2011 and 32 in 2010.

"I like the fact that we did not foul, and we're driving on every possession, folks," Calipari said. "It's not like we're running patterns. We're driving. So in that game, if that was a 40-minute game there were about 60, 80 drive attempts, and to have 20 fouls between your teams is pretty incredible."

It's not happenstance either.

Calipari has been coaching to the new guidelines since the first practice of the fall and the Cats are already accustomed to having real referees on the floor.

"We do that when we scrimmage," Calipari said. "We'll come in and we'll bring officials. We try to get college officials to do our scrimmages, and then the whole time they're calling--every time a hand goes down they call it. They call a foul. If you stop a guy from cutting where he wants to go, they call a foul."

Having already played a season at the college level, Willie Cauley-Stein has had to adjust to the changes. That work began in practice, but he said the scrimmage was somewhat of a light-bulb moment.

"We're trying to work on not fouling so you just kind of put your hands up," Cauley-Stein said. "With the people we got, everybody can score so it's just bucket after bucket after bucket. But to see them in a live setting, I get it now. It makes more sense."

But as many weapons as were on display Tuesday -- nine Cats scored in double figures -- Calipari couldn't help but be encouraged by his team's defense.  UK's guards, and even Cauley-Stein at times, pressured in the backcourt much of the time, contributing to the 38 combined turnovers.

"I like picking up the ball, Dominique (Hawkins) picking up the ball, Aaron and Andrew (Harrison) picking up the ball and then playing off that," Calipari said.

The Cats had 27 steals, including 16 by the Blue team that featured many of UK's projected starters. With no player under 6-foot-6 on the floor for most of the night, the length and athleticism of the Blue team proved to be quite disruptive.

"We defended a lot better today, but we've got a lot of stuff we've got to work on," Julius Randle said. "It's just the beginning of the season. We've got to keep getting better, get better defensively, and we'll get there."

Leading the way on defense (as well as offense) was James Young, who was a terror in both passing lanes and defending on the ball. He tallied seven steals in victimizing the smaller guards on the White team and showed the form that led Coach Cal to mention him as a potential defensive stopper.

"I definitely wasn't a defender in high school," Young said. "Ever since I got here they've been on me about my defense and how it wasn't so good. I've just been trying to work as hard as I can like everybody else has been. I guess it just showed tonight that we can all play defense."

For both Young and the team as a whole, much work still lies ahead. Team defense is still coming along and Johnson's play in the post before Calipari began calling for double teams showed UK remains susceptible to a solid back-to-the basket scorer.

By no means, however, should that worry UK fans. The Cats have been working intensively on defense for all of a week and a half.

"If we're going to be what we want to be, we've got to be a better defensive team, and I'm starting to zero in on defense," Calipari said. "I'm telling you, from the 18th until this date, we've just started defense."

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