LEXINGTON, Ky. — Anyone who pays even cursory attention to Kentucky basketball and John Calipari knows that when the Wildcats coach says, “Are you ready for this number?” what follows has a below-average chance of being accurate. He misremembers, exaggerates for effect and sometimes just throws out his best guess as gospel.
“Half of their misses, they rebound,” Calipari says of Saturday’s opponent, seventh-ranked North Carolina. “For the season.”
This is where it gets wild: He’s right. Well, almost. But close enough. The Tar Heels (10-1) have missed 367 shots so far and corralled 177 of those — 48.2 percent. They lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage and rebounding margin (plus-14.8 per game).
“Now what would you do if you were them?” Calipari asks rhetorically. “You shoot it, because half of those you’re getting back if you miss. You’re either making them or you miss and half those you get back. So that’s why they shoot it quick, because they rebound.”
Also true. UNC’s average possession lasts just 14.4 seconds, the 12th-fastest pace in the country, which helps them average the 11th-most points per game nationally (88.0). Such is Kentucky’s challenge against the Tar Heels in Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic (5:45 p.m. ET, CBS).
“They’re big, they’re physical and they go to the glass,” Calipari said. “I don’t believe any team can be good at everything. So as a coach, you decide, ‘OK, what are our strengths and let’s be really good at those things, and let’s hide the things we don’t do well.’ Well, their strength is that they can really get out and fly; their other strength is they’re really good in the post.”
It just so happens, that’s probably the biggest area of concern so far with the sixth-ranked Wildcats (9-1), who’ve been outrebounded already by Stephen F. Austin, Michigan State, UCLA and Hofstra. They rank 237th nationally in defensive rebound percentage.
Matching up with a veteran team that gets 23.3 percent of its made 2-point baskets on putbacks — which Hoop-Math.com defines as shots taken within four seconds of an offensive rebound — is less than ideal for freshman-heavy Kentucky. How do the Cats combat what the Tar Heels do best with what is their own relative weakness?
“We’ve been practicing putting six guys out there, seeing if we can slide a sixth guy out there,” Calipari joked. “I don’t know. I mean, some of it is fight. Some of it is just put our best rebounders on the floor. If a guy can’t keep a guy off the glass or rebound, can he play this game?”
North Carolina’s frontcourt includes 6-8 junior Justin Jackson, 6-9 senior Isaiah Hicks, 6-11 freshman Tony Bradley and 6-10 senior Kennedy Meeks – all top-100 recruits out of high school, three of them former 5-star prospects. They average 4.7, 5.1, 6.5 and 9.3 rebounds per game, respectively.
Kentucky’s only consistent rebounders, not counting point guard De’Aaron Fox, are freshmen Bam Adebayo (8.0) and Wenyen Gabriel (5.8). But they both give ground more often than they should. The Cats need more from 6-9 senior Derek Willis and 7-foot sophomore Isaac Humphries, and Calipari will consider going with bigger lineups against UNC because of it.
“We’re going to try — try everything,” he said. That might also mean getting unconventional. “I may play four guards. Mychal Mulder was like a four at (junior college). So I could put he and Isaiah Briscoe and two guards and a big guy. Might be better that way. Maybe they have to change.”
Mulder is a 6-foot-4 senior guard, but he has a 44-inch vertical leap and is averaging 8.3 rebounds (and 25.2 points) per 40 minutes this season. If the big men won’t use their size to scrap for rebounds, perhaps Mulder could use his athleticism and simply outjump the Tar Heels.
“We’ve just got to block out and rebound. That’s pretty much it,” Adebayo said plainly. “They got length, they got height, they got speed — and we got the same things, so it’s going to be a good battle.”
Kentucky hopes so, at least. But Calipari already was bracing fans for the possibility of the team’s second defeat before Christmas, with ranked rival Louisville still looming next week.
“We’ll try stuff,” he said, “and that’s the greatest thing about not having to go game to game (thinking), ‘We’ve got to win.’ This isn’t like the football season, where if you lose this one, that one, you’ve got no chance for a national title. It’s not what it is. But we have different things that we have to try.
“I do want to give everybody a chance to prove either they should be playing or not. Coaches don’t make those decisions. Players make those decisions.”
TOP 100 RECRUITS (SCOUT.COM)
10. Justin Jackson (2014)
18. Isaiah Hicks (2013)
19. Theo Pinson (2014)*
26. Tony Bradley (2016)
33. Joel Berry (2014)
40. Seventh Woods (2016)
56. Brandon Robinson (2016)
68. Kennedy Meeks (2013)
* Pinson is injured and will not play Saturday.
6. De’Aaron Fox (2016)
11. Bam Adebayo (2016)
12. Wenyen Gabriel (2016)
13. Malik Monk (2016)
13. Isaiah Briscoe (2015)
27. Sacha Killeya-Jones (2016)