Cats focus on improving during break

Published 4:45 pm Friday, December 1, 2017

LEXINGTON (KT) — John Calipari hasn’t had much time to prepare for Harvard. Although Kentucky got a rare break after playing seven games in a 17-day span, Calipari took the time to get to know his team better.

“We’re probably experimenting a little bit more than just preparing for the next game,” the Kentucky coach said earlier this week. “We’re trying different things, both on defensive and offensively. Trying. The amazing thing is that we’re an efficient team being this young, which is surprising. We still turn it over too much. We don’t rebound as well as we really should, so we’ve zeroed in on that some.”

Calipari believes the Wildcats have the tools in place to become a solid defensive squad as the season progresses.

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“I’m encouraged that if we choose to be a great defensive team we can,” Calipari said. “And if you look at any other young teams in the country that are trying to win at a high level, they’re just trying to out-score people because they’re not great defensive teams. They’re just not. We’re trying to do it the other way. Let’s be a great defensive team. Let’s be a great rebounding team. And then we’re not forced to have to out-score people.

The seventh-ranked Wildcats (6-1) return from the six-day layoff Saturday and will take on the Crimson in the first-ever meeting against the Ivy League program. Harvard (3-5) is coming off a 77-61 loss to Northeastern on Thursday night. Even though Tommy Amaker’s squad has lost two straight, the Crimson defeated UMass and Saint Joseph’s earlier this season.

Calipari compared Harvard to Vermont, which led the Wildcats by double digits before Kentucky escaped with 73-69 victory in the second game of the season.

“They have great post play,” the Kentucky coach said. “Again, just like Vermont – the other teams that we’ve had that have had good post play. They really explore it. They’ll play fast. Their point guard has a green light to go and he can get in the lane. They deny wings. They make catches on the elbows hard. So, again, with a young team – the least team did that and we had to work on getting open.

“Knowing how (to get open) when a guy is face guarding you. They didn’t know any of that. We had to spend a couple of days – now we’re just addressing it again and saying this is how they’re going to play. Tommy (Amaker) – he’s as good as they get. He has a great way about how he coaches and how he gets his teams to play well.”

Harvard guard Bryce Aiken is among the team’s most proficient scorers and tallied a career-high 30 points in a 70-67 overtime win over the Minutemen earlier this season. Aiken poured in 26 points in his previous outing.

“They’ve got a couple players on this team that could’ve gone other places – couple of them could’ve gone SEC – they just chose to go to Harvard,” Calipari said. “That game’s not easy. We’ll see.”

Vanderbilt update: Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt has been doing individual workouts, but Calipari said there’s no guarantee the freshman forward would play this season.

“It’s not going to be my call, it’ll be his,” the Kentucky coach said. “He’s doing individual work right now. He’s not started practicing. We’ll let it play out and if he thinks it’s good for him to play, then he will play.”

Vanderbilt is recovering from a foot injury he suffered during the first week of practice.


Attendance is down but John Calipari doesn’t think the trend will continue for the rest of the season.

“This is a fun team to watch and I think people will — they will come here,” Calipari said.

Through the first six games of the year, the Wildcats are averaging 20,092 fans per home game, down from last season when Kentucky drew an average of 23,462 for each encounter at Rupp Arena. Calipari blamed two Sunday games playing seven encounters during a 17-game stretch as a big reason behind the declining attendance.

“Our attendance is down and it’s really sad because we’re No. 1 in the country in attendance and — we’re No. 1 in the country in attendance,” Calipari said. “It’s kind of like (the media) saying to me, “Cal, you only won by 22, can you tell me what’s wrong with the Cats?” I think people will jump in and do it. And some of it is students — Sunday night — we have a large student section and I think they’re trying to do something with some of the student tickets. But I get it. I mean there are some games I don’t feel like coming and I got to come here anyway.”

Kentucky (6-1) is ranked No. 7 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll and just concluded play in the Adolph Rupp Classic, with four games in a 10-day span. Kentucky is in the midst of a six-day break before taking on Harvard Saturday and will play just five games during the next four weeks.

“This stretch of games coming up is great for us,” Kentucky freshman forward PJ Washington said. “We have time to practice and work on everything. So, I mean we are going to be way better in these upcoming games.”

Kentucky’s lone loss of the year was a 65-61 setback to Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago earlier this month. Although some of the early-season games were somewhat of a struggle, the Wildcats rolled to a 107-73 win over the University of Illinois-Chicago in their last outing.

“This has been a grind,” Calipari said. “We have had how many games? In how many days? 16 days. And all freshmen. The youngest team maybe in the history of college basketball. I know the last 11 years it’s the youngest team. But I tell you this, it may be the youngest team to ever try to do anything special.”

Expected to be one of the team’s top contributors, Kevin Knox leads the team in scoring with 16.1 points per game and leads the team in 3-pointers made with 11. Knox poured in a game-high 25 points in his last contest and is playing a team-high 35.1 minutes per game. Quade Green has made 8 shots from long range on 16 attempts and has missed just one free throw in 11 attempts this season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads the Wildcats with 18 steals.

“I’m starting to figure out Kevin (Knox), putting him in spots where he can make a basket,” Calipari said. “And I still want us to run. I’m all over Quade (Green). I told him after the game, “Who am I on the most?” Quade. I’m trying to get him to play a way that he’s not playing yet. If you remember, this was kind of like what happened with us when we had Marquis Teague. If you remember those first seven, eight, nine games, where everybody was losing their mind and I was trying to get him to play a certain way that he just wasn’t used to playing.”

Growing pains

Calipari and the Wildcats didn’t compete in the inaugural PK80 Invitational this season, a Nike event that featured Florida, Duke, Texas, Michigan State, North Carolina and Arkansas.

“It’s hard when you have teams like this. I mean, you’ve got teams that are now 1-2 and 0-3 and they’re young teams and guess what? They’re rattled right now. Teams are rattled. If we had played a tougher schedule — Vermont was tough enough for us so was Utah Valley, am I right? Were we down nine to Utah Valley? Then we go and we’re looking at teams that we’re, “Oh, we can beat these guys.” Really? East Tennessee State, it’s tied. I mean this team is growing and I got to be fair (to them),” Calipari said. “If I’m just worried about let’s just keep putting this program out here, it isn’t about the program it’s about the kids in the program. If I have a veteran team coming back and I know it, I’ll go in one of those events. It will be close to here, it ain’t going to be a 19-hour flight. That ain’t happening. I don’t like to fly that long, I got a bad back. That is about me. But the reality of it is, if I had that kind of team and we should play in that kind of event, we do it. It’s just this team wasn’t, you know, we’re not ready for that. Now by the end of the year I hope we are. But we’re not ready right now.”

Harvard at Kentucky

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington

Records: Kentucky 6-1, Harvard 3-5.

Last game: Kentucky 107, UIC 73. Northeastern 77, Harvard 61.