No. 6 Kentucky encouraged by defensive results
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky has shown it has no problem scoring with five 100-point games and the Wildcats' offense ranked No. 2 nationally.
Coach John Calipari has been focusing on the other side of the floor, stressing defense to create even more scoring opportunities for the sixth-ranked Wildcats.
His message is apparently getting through so far in Southeastern Conference play with Kentucky's defense factoring into back-to-back routs. In Tuesday night's 100-58 pasting of Texas A&M Kentucky (12-2, 2-0) frequently converted stops into baskets.
The Wildcats outscored the undermanned Aggies 35-2 in points off 25 turnovers, converting six straight A&M miscues into baskets during an early 15-0 run to take control of the game. That effort followed their 99-76 defeat of Mississippi in which Kentucky scored 21 points off 15 Rebels turnovers and held them to 38 percent shooting.
''We've been emphasizing our defense a lot and scrimmaging a lot on offense,'' freshman forward Wenyen Gabriel said. ''We've been picking it up and (showing) that we're a defensive team, so we're trying to pick up the speed of other teams.''
Shifting newcomers' mindsets from offense to defense can take time and patience, the first of which Calipari is utilizing during his so-called ''Camp Cal'' workouts over the semester break. While coaches have spent the abundance of hours working on players' individual strengths, they're also teaching the finer points of rebounding, boxing out and diving for balls.
In different ways, players are embracing the philosophy.
Six-foot-10 freshman Bam Adebayo had a team-high three steals along with three blocks against A&M. The Wildcats handled screens much better than against Louisville and Gabriel appears more comfortable fronting ball handlers.
''I was worried too much, thinking too much,'' Gabriel added, ''but a lot of that is settling down, getting the freshman nerves out of the way and just playing basketball. Playing a little bit more free.''
Calipari seems more encouraged about Kentucky's sustained effort, a mandate for players to earn minutes.
''I take `em out for everything,'' the coach said on Friday. ''If they don't dive on the floor for a loose ball, they're out. If they get beat on a rebound because they're not checking out or just get beat, they're out. ... Short of that, I'm not taking you out. They know. They've got a job to do.''
The Wildcats will need to maintain their defensive intensity in Saturday night's game against Arkansas (12-2, 1-1). The matchup with the Razorbacks begins a seven-game stretch that includes games at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Tennessee - which split with the Wildcats last season. The run concludes Jan. 28 with a home game against No. 3 Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Kentucky and Arkansas have put up nearly identical defensive numbers, with opponents scoring about 71 points per contest on 40 percent shooting. The Razorbacks will no doubt focus on shutting down Kentucky scoring leader and Arkansas native Malik Monk, whose 22.6-point average has overshadowed his defensive development.
Calipari insists that Monk's scoring hasn't earned him a pass on the other end and is urging his 6-3 guard to use his height and length to get more rebounds. Monk welcomes the suggestions but acknowledged that choosing between battling for boards and getting out in transition while his jumper is falling has been hard.
A shooting slump might force Monk to contribute more on the other end, and he promises to be ready.
''That's me, just learning,'' he said of the process earlier this week. ''But I think I'll do a good job with it.''
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