His team needed to at least be able to show the defense in practice for the purposes of preparation, but Coach Cal never actually intended to use it in games. For that reason, zone installation was a quick process.
"I told them stand around and put your arms up," Calipari said, recalling his approach. "And if someone goes by you, kind of switch."
Two decades later, Calipari has softened a bit on his anti-zone stance.
Fielding the tallest team in the country, according to kenpom.com, Calipari has turned to a 2-3 zone in spots as a way to capitalize on his personnel.
"It's really good," James Young said. "It's active. We have our hands up. Coach tells us to communicate a lot so I think it's more effective than our man, really."
Calipari doesn't quite agree with that, but he does admit it has value as a change of pace. That's why he has committed himself to becoming a better teacher of zone, soliciting the help of Rob Murphy, whose Eastern Michigan team has visited Rupp Arena each of the last two seasons.
"Well, Rob at Eastern Michigan was the one who came in and really, you know, gave me the breakdowns and the drill work because you can't just do - you've got to break it down, you've got to do it, you've gotta give them an idea what they have to do and then I would call him," Calipari said.
Murphy was a longtime assistant at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim, the coach perhaps best known for zone. In fact, UK's zone has caught Boeheim's attention.
"Jim Boeheim and I talked and I said, 'You know I played your zone?' " Calipari said. "He said, 'I watch it.' He said, 'You should play more zone.' And he says, 'Every time your team gives up a 3, you go back man-to-man.' And he said, 'But if the other team makes three 3s in your man, you don't go zone.' "
Much of that can be chalked up to ribbing between two friendly coaches, but the zone has been effective in spurts since Calipari began going to it more frequently.
"In the beginning, it was kind of shaky, a little kind of gaps and stuff," Young said. "But as we practice it more, there's not as many gaps and we're communicating in it more."
The first game -- a win at Missouri -- in which No. 18/16 UK (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) used zone extensively came immediately after a road loss to the Wildcats' next opponent, LSU (16-9, 7-6 SEC). UK was blistered for a season-high-tying 87 points in the Jan. 28 defeat.
"Just the intensity and the fight just wasn't there," Julius Randle said. "It was embarrassing, but that's why we get another chance to play."
The Cats trailed by double digits for most of that icy night in Baton Rouge, La., as Johnny O'Bryant posted 29 points and nine rebounds. UK rallied in the final minutes with a flurry of 3-pointers, but don't let the 87-82 final convince you LSU was anything other than dominant.
"Johnny O'Bryant was really good, but he wasn't the only guy that outplayed us," Calipari said. "They outrebounded us. They outcoached us. They outran us. They got is in transition defense. They got us every which way to lose."
Randle and Young both conceded they are thinking about payback ahead of Saturday's 4 p.m. ET tip in Rupp Arena, but neither was about to offer anything in the way of bulletin-board material.
"I don't like to do too much talking," said Randle, who was held to six points on 3-of-11 shooting in the first LSU matchup. "We'll see what happens once we get on the court."
There will be similar intrigue regarding how often Calipari turns to the zone, which has evolved beyond a standard 2-3 in the last week. UK most often deploys the zone out of dead balls and it begins with a sort of 1-1-3 look when opponents cross mid-court.
"It's more like a tandem, like one guy up top and a guy under him," Young said. "When they get it toward the corner or anything, then we go back to our normal 2-3 zone. It's just to throw the offense off."
Calipari debuted the tweaked zone in a loss to Florida last Saturday in which UK defended as well as it has all season for the first 29 minutes. The Cats used it again in a Tuesday win at Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 38.7-percent shooting.
Jarrod Polson drew praise from Calipari for his activity in the zone, but the real standout is Aaron Harrison.
"I'll tell you who is the best zone player I've seen is Aaron," Calipari said. "He's like; I'm calling him 'The Cat' now. The team is laughing their butt - I show them on the tape, man, he's like a cat."
Coach Cal fielded multiple questions about the zone on Friday at his regular pregame media availability, questions surely fueled in part by a rapidly growing group of zone advocates among the fan base. Calipari, however, doesn't want it to be forgotten the zone has been far from flawless.
"It's funny, people that want us to play zone it's kind of like coaching a kid and being positive 80 percent of the time and he only remembers that you get on him," Calipari said. "So the zone people out there see every stop and don't realize that Mississippi was getting back in the game because they made four straight baskets in a row (vs. the zone)."
It's in those moments that Calipari remembers why he's so staunchly relied on man-to-man defense throughout his career. Fittingly, it was a former player of his at UMass who reminded him of the same thing.
"(Auburn head coach) Tony Barbee said this to me: 'You're good in zone, Coach, but when you switch everything (in man-to-man), it's a one-on-one game. There is nothing else we can do,' " Calipari said. "When you play zone, you know they're always going to be able to get off a 3 at any point, now if they're making them, you lose."
That doesn't mean Calipari discounts the value of zone altogether. In fact, it's been a boost to a Kentucky team beginning to find its stride.
"But it's a good changeup," Calipari said, "it's a good defense for us, it's been good and we've worked on it every day which, you know, it's not something I've done in the past but we're working at it and trying to give these guys the best opportunity they can to win."
It wasn't pretty, but Epps could only think of one way to react.
"I looked up at the scoreboard once and I was like, 'We're down 20 and it can't get (any) worse so just go,' Epps said. " 'Fight to the finish.' "
When Epps came in with 15:09 left, UK trailed 53-32. Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina had been dominant, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a comfortable margin with a 15-4 run. With no reason for the self-doubt natural for a freshman, Epps threw caution to the win and went on the attack.
Within a minute, she hit a jumper. Later, she scored six straight points as UK showed signs of life and cut the South Carolina lead to 11 with 9:31 left. The Gamecocks, however, were too much on this night.
"We ran into a really, really tough opponent that's extremely talented, plays real hard," Matthew Mitchell said. "They were tough defensively, tough offensively, really, really active on the boards and we got whipped tonight."
Riding an astounding 44-19 rebounding edge, the No. 4/6 Gamecocks (23-2, 11-1 SEC) took down No. 15/15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5 SEC), 81-58. Aleighsa Welch had a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds and South Carolina shot 52.6 percent for the game and 60 percent in the second half to erase any thoughts of a comeback.
Epps, however, wouldn't stop.
"Coach Mitchell, four minutes to go at the last media timeout, he was like, 'Just finish the game. Keep playing hard, keep playing hard,' " Epps said. "And that's what I was trying to do.' "
Epps finished with a career-high 16 points, 14 of which came after halftime. She played point guard for much of her 15 second-half minutes, coping more effectively with South Carolina's physical defense than any of her teammates.
On a night that saw UK's two-game win streak end and a bid at a second straight win over a top-10 team come up short, that was at least one reason to be encouraged.
"She was able to use her size and strength to make some plays in transition that were available to us and I thought played with some good tempo offensively," Mitchell said. "She's a talented player and she'll just keep getting better, but she had a really good night."
Now, Epps and the Wildcats go back to work.
"You have to let go of this result and try to find out ways to address meaningful things that'll actually impact the game," Mitchell said. "So the score of this game will not impact Sunday's game unless we come in tomorrow down and defeated and discouraged."
Sunday's game won't be an easy one, as UK travels to Texas A&M to face the only team that's taken down South Carolina in SEC play. The good news is the Cats have some experience responding to losses.
"We've been here before," Epps said. "It's not like it's our first loss or (anything) like that. So we've been in this position before and we know what we're capable of. All the players, all the coaches, we know what we're capable of. So, like I said, we got Sunday to look forward to. We got Texas A&M and nobody says we can't go out there and beat them. So we're looking for a bounce back."
Similarly, Dawn Staley could change the approach of her Gamecock team to catch Kentucky off guard in a rematch in Memorial Coliseum.
The two coaches could, but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
"They won't see a whole lot different from us and I doubt we see a whole lot different from them," Mitchell said. "We just need to play better than we did over there."
If the last week is any indication, it seems reasonable to expect No. 15/15 UK (19-6, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) will do just that on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are fresh off their first 2-0 week in SEC play, a week that included an upset of Tennessee on Sunday. The win over the Lady Volunteers -- UK's first in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985 -- proved that Mitchell had good reason for keeping the faith that his team is capable of making noise the rest of the season.
He spent last week reminding the Cats of what they accomplished in starting nonconference play 11-0, showing tape of UK's memorable victories over top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. With another such win now in the much more recent past, that confidence Mitchell worked to build goes to another level.
"It's just like a boost," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We knew we could do it and we've shown people that we can do it and now we just gotta go out there and do it."
No. 4 South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) won't make that easy.
The Gamecocks have reeled off seven straight wins in SEC play behind a dominant defense that allows just 53.9 points per game. South Carolina's only loss in conference came on the road against top-25 Texas A&M by just two points, and in overtime to boot.
"We have great battles and they certainly have brought out the best in us over the years and I think it's developed into a good rivalry," Mitchell said.
UK and South Carolina have split their last six matchups with each one decided by single digits. That means Thursday will be a challenge, but one the Cats think they need.
"I think it's really good that we face somebody as good as South Carolina at a time like this to really see where we are," Goss said.
The first time around, UK wasn't ready to cope with South Carolina's physical defense for 40 minutes. In that game, the Cats charged out to an early lead before going ice cold from the field. They shot a then-season-low 31.5 percent, putting them in a 22-point hole that a late rally could not overcome.
"I think it was because of us, because of our shot selection," Goss said. "But we're a whole different team from when we played them a little (more) than a month ago, so I'm really excited."
With DeNesha Stallworth back at full strength, UK looks different from a personnel perspective though their approach remains the same. The loss at South Carolina was the senior forward's second game back following a knee injury that sidelined her for a month. With 11 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes, she played well given the circumstances at South Carolina, but Stallworth is at another level now.
"She's a completely different player now, playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of toughness," Goss said.
Over her last three games, Stallworth is averaging 16.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Stallworth's emergence has corresponded with that of point guard Jennifer O'Neill, the reigning SEC Player of the Week. After the junior scored just 12 points in 32 combined minutes against Georgia and LSU, O'Neill has scored 20 or more points in three consecutive outings.
"It's real simple with Jennifer, we want her to attack off the ball screens and look to score there and we want her down and ready when she doesn't have the ball, prepared to shoot," Mitchell said.
O'Neill didn't hesitate to shoot the first time around against South Carolina, but the shots certainly didn't fall. She was just 1 for 13 on Jan. 9, scoring five points. With the way O'Neill has played of late, Goss isn't doesn't see a repeat performance coming.
"I'm not expecting 30 points, 40 points, but, you know, for her she's playing with a lot confidence and she has every right to," Goss said. "She should feel like every shot's going in because I know every time she shoots it I know that it's going in."
It's no coincidence that Stallworth and O'Neill have played their best basketball since early in the season as the Cats have done the same. It's also no coincidence that the reasons are the same.
"I think just our mindset has changed," Goss said. "We're just more aggressive, we're confident, we're believing in ourselves, we're playing as a team and I think that's really key."
Aggressiveness and confidence will be even more important considering South Carolina's strength inside. The Gamecocks blocked 14 shots in the first matchup and rank third nationally with 7.1 blocks per game.
"I don't think we did a good job playing through that last time," Goss said. "But shot-blocking's part of the game and we just gotta go out there, you know, get your shot blocked, we'll go get another board or go get a defensive stop or make the stop or something like that."
UK coped well with Tennessee's length on Sunday and will look to do the same against Elem Ibiam and Co. If they do, the Cats could be celebrating their second top-10 win in five days.
"That'd be pretty sweet," Goss said.