LEXINGTON, Ky. – Remember when Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said this could be his best defensive team? And when that made a lot of sense, given the length and athleticism he’d stockpiled? And how odd it was when that notion disintegrated as the young Wildcats gave up 97 points to UCLA and 100 to North Carolina?
“What was I smoking?” Calipari joked after escaping a shootout with the Tar Heels.
But now, after sixth-ranked Kentucky’s 23-point win at Ole Miss last week and 42-point pasting of Texas A&M on Tuesday night to open Southeastern Conference play, it looks like Calipari might’ve been right. The Cats (12-2, 2-0) have been positively suffocating the last two times out.
“I told Billy (Kennedy) after: That’s about as well as we can play,” Calipari said following a 100-58 walloping of the Aggies. “This is starting to look like a team I coach, defensively.”
Kentucky swarmed from the opening tip and A&M collapsed under the pressure, hitting just 3 of 14 shots and committing 12 turnovers in as many minutes to start the game. In their last two first halves, the Wildcats have held opponents to 35.8 percent shooting and forced 23 turnovers against just 13 assists.
Both of those games were effectively over by intermission.
“We saw them with their heads down, and that’s when you step on their neck and you just try to finish the game,” freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “It’s not going to be close when we’re playing defense.”
Since allowing a season-worst 1.27 points per possession against North Carolina, that number has decreased in each of Kentucky’s past three games, all the way down to 0.817 against the Aggies, who coughed up 25 turnovers Tuesday. The Wildcats had double-digit steals for just the third time this season.
“We’re playing with more discipline. It’s what we’re focused on, what we’re working on,” Calipari said. “And guys, if they broke down, I took them out. We’re talking about, ‘This is how we’re playing as a team. This is your job. Do your job so we can trust you, and then you have to trust each other.’ I’m just trying to build trust within this team.”
That’s not an overnight process when you start four freshmen, but these are really good freshmen – all former 5-star recruits – and it turns out, they’re fairly fast learners, too. Camp Cal, the intensive boot camp between semesters, has afforded the youngsters extra time together in the gym to grow.
That progress is beginning to show itself.
“We were just tuned in,” freshman Malik Monk said. “I think I talked way better. If I communicate, I know I’ll be in my right spot if I tell my teammate what spot to be in.”
That’s where Fox can feel the biggest improvement. Guys are buying into Calipari’s message of trust, and now they’re learning what that looks and sounds like.
“Usually, it’s just something as small as ‘let me through’ or ‘switch.’ Now, just hearing that voice, you don’t have to look back. When people are talking, you don’t have to look,” Fox said. “It’s just being able to trust whoever is behind you. You can see, someone will help and then someone will help the helper. That’s where we’ve been more effective. When you have ball pressure, if you get beat, you have to trust that someone’s going to help you.
“You just click like that. When we’re all talking defensively, it’s hard to score on us.”
Kentucky’s offense has rarely been a problem. The Wildcats average 94 points per game and have topped the century mark five times already. They’re third nationally in points per 100 possessions and have a super scorer in Monk, who dropped 26 on Texas A&M.
But what can this team be if it is willing to consistently defend the way we’ve seen these last two games?
“Just scary,” Monk said. “It just makes us get on the break faster, so I think we should start doing that way more. And I think we’re going to be locked in and do that.”
In which case, good luck with these guys, college basketball.