Right Mindset Key in Defensive Improvement

DES MOINES, Iowa – Kentucky has undoubtedly been playing its best basketball of the season over the past two weeks, but there is one surprising aspect of the Wildcats’ game that hasn’t been on the same upward trajectory as the others.

And it’s an area that’s typically a strong suit for John Calipari-coached teams.

“Individually, guys are becoming the best version of themselves,” Coach Cal said. “As a team, they're becoming more efficient on offense. We're still not where we want to be defensively.”

Defensively, Kentucky has struggled a bit the last two games. Against Georgia, the Bulldogs scored 1.23 points per possession, the most by a Wildcat opponent since Tennessee scored 1.25 points per possession on Feb. 2 in a UK loss. Texas A&M then scored 1.07 points per possession and shot 42.4 percent from the field after hitting just 38.9 percent when the teams las matched in College Station, Texas.

But, as Coach Cal pointed out Monday on the SEC coaches’ teleconference, stats don’t always tell the entire story.

“Well, let me say this: There were four ridiculously tough shots that they made,” Coach Cal said of Texas A&M. “You have to accept it.”

Kentucky’s offensive efficiency has continued to move up the rankings all the way to No. 1 in the country on the eve of the NCAA Tournament’s first round. Its defensive efficiency, however, has dropped all the way to No. 72. No team has won the national championship with a defensive efficiency ranking outside the top 25 since Ken Pomeroy began tracking the statistic in 2002. 

One thing Coach Cal is trying to have his team work on is to notice the energy that their starting point guard Tyler Ulis plays with on the defensive end.

“There are things we can point out and we even showed today tape of the effort of Tyler – the bounciness, the aggressiveness that he played with – and talked about other players on the floor that you watch yourself compared to how he’s doing at the same time,” Coach Cal said. “I mean, it’s pretty telling.”

Calipari knows matching Ulis is a tall order, so he noted to them, “if you can only do that three, four minutes at the time, just do it three, four minutes.”

Part of being able to give full effort on the court on the defensive end, Coach Cal said, is to be in the right frame of mind. That’s especially important in a win-or-go-home tournament.

“It’s on you to be in the right frame of mind,” Coach Cal said. “Being in a desperate frame of mind, being in an excited frame of mind ready to play, not an anxious frame of mind. That has nothing to do with us or our team or our coaching. It’s your responsibility. If you’re worried about playing and anxious about playing, it’s going to show. You’re going to wear out, you’re going to miss plays, you’re going to look like you’re lethargic. If you’re excited and desperate about playing, it shows somebody different.”

Always important to have some fun

It was around this time one year ago that the Super Smash Brothers craze swept the Kentucky men’s basketball team.

Apparently the craze never ended.

“They never stopped playing,” said Marcus Lee, who added that he doesn’t play it because he’s not good at video games. “They’re always playing and they’re always in there yelling and screaming at each other.”

In the postseason, when the stakes are raised to their highest levels, Coach Cal wants his team to have more fun than they’ve ever had before. The reason, Tyler Ulis says, is to make sure players don’t get tight and anxious.

“When it’s win or go home some guys stress out a little more, get more anxious and don’t play their game. You have to stay loose and play with a lot of fun because it’s about having fun out there. The team that has the most fun plays without anything to lose and that’s what we need to do.”

Kentucky is playing in its 55th NCAA Tournament, but it will be the first tournament for a number of players. Being with Coach Cal for three years now, Lee said on Monday that every season this is the time of year that he always stresses to have fun.

“I want my teams to have more fun than any team in this tournament,” Coach Cal said. “When you watch 'em, if we are doing our job as a staff you're going to say, boy, they have fun playing basketball. If I do that and we don't win, we got a pretty good group comin' next year.”

Even inexperienced Cats prepared for March Madness

John Calipari was asked about his first NCAA Tournament experience on Wednesday and he could have gone on all day.

He reeled off a nearly photographic memory of his experience as UMass head coach, from a second-round matchup with Syracuse to a Sweet 16 showdown with Kentucky.

“I can tell you where we ate, where I stayed,” Calipari said. “I can tell you all that if you want to know.”

Twenty-four years later, the NCAA Tournament is old hat for Calipari. Now boasting a streak of four Final Four trips in five seasons, Coach Cal has a well-earned reputation for taking teams deep into the tournament. He’ll look to add to that reputation starting Thursday against Stony Brook.

“This is where he excels,” Derek Willis said.

Willis has been on Calipari’s last two Final Four squads, as has junior Marcus Lee. Of course, UK has a handful of freshmen about to play in the Big Dance for the first time, but even they’re prepared.

So goes life at UK.

“It’s a survive-or-die kind of place,” Lee said. “That being that setting the whole year kind of sets you to be ready. He sets up our schedule in a way where we have to play the hardest games possible each day. Even in the SEC, we battle every day because we have such great teams in the SEC. So I just kind of sets us up to be ready for the extreme battles that await us in the tournament.”

Des Moines serving well as first-time host

It’s not the biggest or flashiest city in the country, but Coach Cal and the Kentucky basketball team are enjoying their time in Des Moines, Iowa.

Under Calipari, Kentucky has played in a number of big cities, including New Orleans, St. Louis, Atlanta and Houston, among others, but Des Moines, with a population of just more than 200,000, has pleased the UK head coach.

“We're excited about being here,” Calipari said. “Me personally I got the three things I need. I have the Catholic church. I have the Dunkin' Donuts, and I have the Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa. What else do I need?”

And Des Moines is happy to be hosting. Wells Fargo Arena hosted eight teams for open practices Wednesday that have accumulated 20 national titles combined, more than any other host city in the tournament.

“It's terrific for the city, and I think this is one of those rare moments where we're all in one place together, and it should be exciting because it should be some great basketball,” Coach Cal said. “It should be some of the exciting stuff that basketball fans want to see, and it should be fun.”