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One And One

As Kentucky figures it out, even slight defensive improvement can key big run

Willie Cauley-Stein, KentuckyWillie Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats couldn't prevent LSU from shooting over 50 percent in last week's upset. (Tim Mueller/AP)

Kentucky hosts Mississippi on Tuesday night in another stop on its Figuring It Out Tour ’14. The Wildcats, after all, are in a perpetual state of Figuring It Out, which is nothing new in John Calipari's five years in Lexington. It might be fair to wonder by now if everyone inflated the sum of the Cats' parts, but that is impossible to know for certain until the season is over, and at no point is it safe to issue a declarative statement about what his team can accomplish.

The last two years are evidence enough of that. In 2012, his Anthony Davis-led team of freshmen and sophomores rolled to the national championship with a 38-2 record. In 2013, another batch of freshmen got bounced in the first round of the NIT by Robert Morris.

The more comparative season might be 2011. At this time three years ago, a typically young Wildcats squad was ranked No. 18 with a 16-6 record and coming off a week that included two conference road losses. This year's group is also very young, also ranked 18th and is 16-5 and also coming off a conference road loss. The 2011 team didn't really get going until late February, ripping off 10 straight wins that included the SEC tournament title and the East Regional crown that secured the school's first Final Four berth in 13 seasons.

For this Wildcats group to have a similar outcome, it may have to improve its defense. They currently rank 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, allowing 97.3 points per 100 possessions. That would put them outside the typical range of a Final Four team, though it isn't unheard of for a club with comparable defensive numbers to reach the final weekend. Michigan, for instance, played for a national title last season and finished 48th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Butler (45th) and VCU (84th) were outliers in several senses in 2011. In 2012, however, all four teams ranked in the top 10. Between 2009 and 2010, three Final Four teams ranked outside the top 20 of the adjusted defensive efficiency rankings and the other five ranked in the top 13.

There were signs of a light bulb flickering on for Kentucky during a three-game homestand in which opponents posted effective field goal percentages no better than 43.1 percent . . . and then LSU and Missouri both had raw shooting percentages better than 50 percent and had effective efficiencies of 56.3 percent and 54.2 percent, respectively, as Kentucky split those contests.

“Back-to-back 50 percent shooting nights against my teams, I can’t imagine that it’s happened,” Calipari said, considering the breadth of his entire career. “But it did.”

“The issue becomes the enthusiasm, the passion, the spirit we play with on defense,” he added. “We should be a better defensive team than we are right now. But a lot of it is just transition defense: How about we sprint back? Last game we’re in every huddle – ‘They’re driving right, they’re driving right, make them go left.’ And they just kept driving right.

“I keep saying, it’s not a skill set, it’s not we don’t have good guys, they’re a good team. All the things people say are weaknesses, we can change. We got size, we got athleticism, we got depth. The things you have no control over, we have. So we’ve got things that we can change and we’re going to try to.”

It seems important here to note two relevant pieces of information: First, each of the top eight Wildcats who average double-digit minutes per game are freshmen or sophomores, and only two -- Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress -- are in the latter category. Second, there are 10 regular-season games left on Kentucky’s schedule.

“We have the youngest team in the country, and we know with that, that presents its challenges,” Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua said Monday afternoon.

“We’re still a young team no matter what anybody says,” added freshman guard Andrew Harrison.

It is early February and most teams are who they are. A sense of skepticism about Kentucky is defensible, but it won't be until the Wildcats play their last game that everyone will know exactly what the Wildcats were capable of. Until then, Calipari nourishes his players with the idea of more. More to fix, more to learn and, certainly, more to accomplish.

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