NEW YORK – Getting freshmen to play enthusiastic defense, much less good defense, is no easy task. But Kentucky basketball’s freshmen? “They’re not ordinary freshmen,” sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe said.
No, on a night when the second-ranked Wildcats collided with 13th-ranked Michigan State, the two teams having signed a total of nine top-50 freshmen, Kentucky’s youngsters looked far advanced in comparison. They made the Spartans seem disorganized during a 69-48 thumping in the Champions Classic on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
“I’m actually a little embarrassed,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “We just didn’t do anything offensively. We looked like a team that was an AAU team, just went one-on-one, didn’t move the ball, got frustrated. I think some of that was we were a little fatigued [having played in Hawaii on Saturday], and I think John [Calipari] did a hell of a job. I do think that is one of his better defensive teams.”
Mind you, the season is three games old and Kentucky (3-0) is starting three freshmen – with a fourth rookie as its sixth man. But the Wildcats held the Spartans to 32.8 percent shooting and forced 20 turnovers. Five UK players had at least one steal and six guys blocked at least one shot.
Those freshmen combined for four blocks and four steals and helped harass Michigan State’s star freshman, Miles Bridges, into a nine-turnover, 2-for-11 shooting night.
“They pick things up fast,” Briscoe said. “They listen and they know how to play basketball.”
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Calipari wasn’t pleased with his team’s defense in the first two games, though, after Stephen F. Austin scored 16 more points on Kentucky than did Michigan State and Canisius scored 21 more. The Lumberjacks shot 47.8 percent in the first half against the Cats and the Golden Griffins shot 45.7 percent.
“Coach has been preaching to us that he never worries about the offense,” Briscoe said. “He just worries about defense, and offense will take care of itself. The more comfortable we get with each other, the more we talk on defense, the better we are at defense. When we’re getting rebounds, blocked shots, if I get the ball, or Malik [Monk] or [De’Aaron] Fox, any of us, we’re running.
“We’re trying to get layups. That’s when we’re playing to our strengths and that’s when we’re at our best.”
Kentucky’s coach had just been bemoaning the lack of communication on defense by his youngsters heading into Tuesday night’s game. Briscoe was talking and everyone else was either silent or mumbling or a beat slow in shouting, “Switch!” and the damage was already done.
Monk, the freshman who poured in 23 points and hit seven 3-pointers, said nothing about that win surprised him – “I knew all of us would fight for each other” – but Briscoe was pleasantly surprised.
“We did play crazy defense,” he said, grinning.
Indeed, when the ball went up under the bright lights in New York City, the Wildcats were suddenly suffocating. Not perfect, but giving a glimpse of what Calipari had said all offseason might be his best defensive team yet.
“What happened was these guys took some pride defensively here,” Calipari said, noting that he installed the plan for shutting down Michigan State in a single day. “That shows you how smart these guys are. This shows us what we’re capable of. Now we have to build from this and we have to convince them of that, that if we become a great defensive team …
“This is one that the hard work, they know now it’s worth it. Now it’s like, let’s step on the gas. Let’s go to another level.”