Cats Building Confidence Through Defense, Not Rankings

The talk among Kentucky fans this week, as it always does, has covered a lot of ground.

On Sunday night, De’Aaron Fox learned firsthand about that, as fans wondered en masse why he had abandoned his customary hairstyle for a flatter look.

Cleveland State at Kentucky

Wed., Nov. 23 - 1 p.m. ET
Rupp Arena
Lexington, Ky.
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UK 2016-17 Team Stats CSU
4-0 Record 1-2
0-0 Conference Record 0-0
85.5 PPG 71.7
60.0 Opp PPG 76.0
.463 FG% .422
.390 Opp FG% .457
39.0 RPG 31.3
.284 3PT FG% .349
.209 Opp 3PT FG% .317
.718 FT% .680
16.8 APG 13.3
8.8 SPG 6.3
8.3 BPG 6.7
“I kind of expected it,” Fox said. “A lot of people always say they like my hair how it was. Some people actually liked it the way I had it last game. I see people talk about it, but it’s not that big of a deal, at least to me.”

Well, it turns out it was only temporary, something Fox has to do to make his normal look happen, but the lesson about the attention the Wildcats receive remains. It’s one every player on the roster is reminded of constantly.

“They become larger than life,” John Calipari said. “They're all dealing with it, though. We got a great group of kids. They know we got a ways to go. They're not carried away by rankings and all that.”

Speaking of rankings, the buzz around Kentucky has shifted to the No. 1 ranking the Cats (4-0) now carry into a matchup with Cleveland State at 1 p.m. on Wednesday. For another program the moment might be a landmark one, but for UK it’s business as usual. This, after all, is the sixth time in Calipari’s eight seasons UK has topped the polls.

Similarly, such a ranking might serve as affirmation elsewhere. Calipari, meanwhile, is quick to tell his team what their true source of confidence should be. 

“One of the things I just talked to them about, confidence, a lot of times, starts with defense,” Calipari said. “If you’re getting pummeled and you think you’re going to go out and make some moves, you’re out of your mind. You’ve never played this sport. So on my team, I talk about confidence. It starts when you have some defensive confidence.”

Calipari, in an even livelier mood than usual, then administered a quick pop quiz to assembled media in asking who has that defensive confidence. Isaiah Briscoe was the easy answer, with Fox, Bam Adebayo and Dominique Hawkins quickly to follow. Making a move to join the group, Calipari said, is Malik Monk.

“Malik is for the first time in his life trying to guard somebody,” Calipari said. “He’s building his defensive confidence because he’s figuring out, ‘Man, am I quick and long and active. I can do this.’  He doesn’t have the discipline to sustain it but he has the confidence.”

It’s a bit scary for opponents to think the Cats are only coming along in that department when you consider they’re allowing just 0.78 points per possession and are forcing turnovers at the fifth-best rate among all Division-I teams. 

“Now you talk about these other guys and I said the only way you can gain that confidence is in practice because I can tell you if you get beat two or three times off the dribble you’re coming out,” Calipari said. “Hard to be confident when I’m taking you out because you’re getting beat on the dribble.”

Derek Willis is one of the players who’s been substituted due to defense, so he’s been taking Calipari’s message about building confidence in practice to heart.

“In practice I’ve been trying to focus more on defending, rebounding and playing with a little more energy,” Willis said. “I feel like that was kind of an issue, so just trying to get things going and just go from there.”

Willis is also proof of Calipari’s point that confidence stems from defense, as the senior’s outside shot hasn’t been falling like it did last year. He’s hit only two of his eight 3-point tries this season, but isn’t overly concerned. That’s wise, because Coach Cal isn’t concerned with whether or not shots are falling.

“I don’t take you out on missed shots. There’s a guy in the room who shot 14 percent from 3 and 48 percent from the foul line and played the ninth-most minutes in our league,” Calipari said, referencing Briscoe’s freshman season. “League. Not on my team. League. So don’t tell me I take you out because you missed a shot because he would never have played last year.”

Playing time – as does building confidence – all comes down to the other end of the floor.

“It’s all based on defensive intensity,” Calipari said. “You do that, you rebound the ball, you get a chance to stay in and miss shots. I said, ‘I’m not subbing him because that kid right there wins. He fights. He’ll punch. He bites. He’s winning. That’s what we need from a team full of guys.”

The Nation's All-Time Wins Leader Returns to the Top of the Polls

Kentucky is the top team in the land according to the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll. The Wildcats landed at No. 1 in both major polls on Monday. The Wildcats picked up 42 of the 65 first-place votes in the AP Top 25 and 20 of the 31 firstplace votes in the Coaches’ Poll.

UK and John Calipari have been tough to beat playing the role of the hunted:

• The Wildcats own an all-time record of 218-29 (.883) as the nation’s top-ranked squad
• UK has won 63 of its last 67 contests as the AP’s top team
• The Wildcats are 66-6 (.917) as the AP No. 1 team since Calipari’s first year at the helm, the best record in the country by a top-ranked team during that span
• In eight seasons under Calipari, the Wildcats have reached No. 1 in six of those seasons
• Calipari is 107-11 (.908) all-time as head coach of the AP’s No. 1 team
• Only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (193) has more wins as a No. 1 ranked coach among active NCAA Division I teams than Calipari
• Kentucky has lost just twice at home as the AP top-ranked team in the history of the program and just once in Rupp Arena. Both losses came by just one point
• UK has now been ranked No. 1 a total of 123 weeks since the AP started ranking teams during the 1948-49 season. Only UCLA (134) and Duke (129) have been atop the rankings for more weeks

Wildcats Roll, Down Duquesne for Fourth Straight Win

Five days after downing No. 13/13 Michigan State in Madison Square Garden, the second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats continued to roll with another stout performance in a 93-59 win over Duquense on Sunday. The win was the 122nd for head coach John Calipari in Rupp Arena, tying him with Joe B. Hall for the most wins in the arena as UK's head coach.

Freshman De'Aaron Fox displayed his versatility with 16 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals in pacing five players in double-figure scoring. Senior Mychal Mulder poured in a career-high 13 points, while freshman Malik Monk (14), sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (13) and Bam Adebayo (12) were the others to reach double digits. Briscoe was the sparkplug to the defensive intensity with four first-half steals.

As a team the Wildcats swiped 11 steals and have 35 through its first four games. That's the most since the 2004-05 team also had 35 through its first four games.

Kentucky led for 37:27 of the game and owned a 41-point lead during the second half. The Dukes were frustrated into 18 turnovers, and the Wildcats continued to shine in the open court with 18 fast-break points.

Other notables:

• This is the sixth time in eight seasons under Coach John Calipari that the Wildcats have opened with four straight wins
• Kentucky limited Duquesne to 59 points. UK is 137-5 (.964) under Calipari when limiting the opponents to 63 points or fewer
• Kentucky had its best rebounding performance of the season, leading the boardwork 49-32, a plus-17 margin.
• Ten Wildcats saw action for at least 10 minutes, all of whom scored at least two points and grabbed at least two rebounds. Five players scored in double figures
• Kentucky has a 36-game win streak at home against teams that are not ranked in the Associated Press Top 25
• UK increased its home-winning streak to 40 games, the second-longest such streak in Rupp Arena history
• Freshman Wenyen Gabriel made his first start and contributed eight points and six rebounds, his second straight game with six boards
• Freshman Tai Wynyard made his only shot, his first points as a Wildcat