As the Belmont Bruins set foot on the hard court of Rupp Arena tomorrow, remember that this game is a guaranteed “W” for the good guys in blue. With how we’ve played of late, with a bit of inconsistency, we can’t take any team for granted. They’ve got a veteran coach in Rick Byrd and a veteran team. Ken Howlett of coachcal.com breaks it down for us.
The Players — The Bruins are led in scoring by 6-foot-6 junior swingman J.J. Mann, who scores 17.7 points and grabs 4.8 rebounds per game. An outstanding free-throw shooter, Mann connects on 91.1 percent of his attempts from the line (51 of 56).
Craig Bradshaw, a 6-3 sophomore guard is second on the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game. An outstanding perimeter shooter, Bradshaw connects on 47.5 percent of his long-range shots and 53.8 percent of his overall shots from the floor. Samford transfer Drew Windler, a 6-9 senior forward, puts up 12.3 points per game and is another highly accurate 3-point shooter, having made 28 of 50 shots from distance on the season (56.0 percent). Windler is not unfamiliar with Kentucky, having played against the Cats in 2012 while at Samford, scoring 11 points. Belmont’s best defender, 6-8 senior forward Blake Jenkins, is capable of guarding all five spots on the floor and is also one of the Bruins’ best board men, snagging 4.8 rebounds per game.
Dominate the boards — On the season, Belmont is 254th in the nation in offensive rebound percentage at 29.6, and 184th in defensive rebound percentage at 68.7. This presents UK with an opportunity to dominate in second-chance points and limit the Bruins to one-and-done offensive sets.
Value ball possession — In Kentucky’s last two games, the Cats have turned the ball over a total of 36 times. Wildcat turnovers are coming from every position on the floor, with the Kentucky guards accounting for 19 turnovers and the big men committing 16 — with two team turnovers — over the last two contests. If the Cats are to optimize their offensive capabilities against a team that has little difficulty scoring the basketball, valuing possession will play a key role.
Guard the perimeter — As a team, Belmont is connecting on 38.3 percent of its 3-point attempts (54th in the nation), and the Bruins’ 105 made 3-pointers on the season ranks sixth in college basketball. Furthermore, Belmont’s 49.2 percent field-goal accuracy is 28th best in the land. Obviously, the Bruins can flat-out shoot the basketball, meaning UK’s ability to play consistently tough, switching defense, something the squad has struggled with in the early going, will be tested. Hedging on screens, a bugaboo in the Cats’ loss to North Carolina, will be vitally important as Belmont will make late closers pay with its outstanding 3-point shooting, or counter with drives into the lane where the Bruins will draw the defense and kick out to the open shooter.
Here is the matchup to be watched most closely.
Kentucky’s defense vs. Belmont’s patient half-court offense — Like a wolf stalking its prey, the Bruins half-court offense is patient; patient while waiting for their foe to make a mistake. That patience pays off for the Bruins in either open 3-point attempts, or virtually uncontested 2-point shots in or near the lane. Kentucky’s defense, at times dangerously effective, also tends to relax at times, allowing either open shots from the perimeter or midrange jumpers with light pressure. Against Belmont, losing defensive focus and intensity will more often than not result in a basket for the Bruins. The challenge facing UK on Saturday afternoon is to consistently defend with a purpose, while being mindful of guarding for the entirety of the 35-second shot clock.
What these Kentucky Wildcats seem to have trouble with is finishing games. Of late we will battle back to tie the game or take the lead then seem to falter on some fluke play, or series of lax plays that cost us the game. Through 11 games, Coach Calipari is making sure his players understand, “It’s how you finish“.
ON WORKING ON THE LAST FIVE MINUTES OF GAMES: “Really, it’s working on the last three, four minutes of the game. And it’s something that we’ve had to do here every year I’ve been here. Really narrow in to what you do and what you absolutely don’t do. And we’ve got to be clear on it. I think, again, I mentioned this: more organized offensively, because their instincts are, right now, for them. Not us, their instincts. So we’ve got to be a little more organized. There were things that we did that I said we’re getting better, and there are other things that I watched the tape and I said we’re not getting better. We reverted on some things. But it’s a process.”
ON IF HE CAN TELL THAT THIS TEAM IS BOTHERED BY LOSSES, AFTER SAYING LAST SEASON’S TEAM DIDN’T HATE TO LOSE: “They are, but they’re making critical errors down the stretch. In some cases, we shouldn’t be in that position. So we can all talk about the last three minutes, but there may have been at the seven-minute mark, the eight-minute mark, we’re ready to go to 13, 14 (points ahead) and the ballgame’s over and we go back to, ‘I’m gonna do my thing.’ Then all of a sudden it’s a turnover, missed shot, now all of a sudden it’s five. Now all of a sudden the game changes. We’re doing a little bit of all that right now.
“Look, at the end of the day – and my message to them is simple today – you can’t change how we started. Not changing. You can change how you approach the end. And that’s how you’ll be remembered. We’ve made strides in practice, but you got to carry it over. You got to take the habits we’re trying to create, understand you really got to focus. And you can’t play as many minutes. Got to play less minutes. Means guys got to be ready to go in and out. The guys that are coming off the bench, you may not play as many minutes as you want because the guys take themselves out and he’s ready to go back. Just how it is right now.
“But this team at the end of the day has got to be a great defensive team. That’s what we need to be, and we’re not. And it starts (with) pressuring the ball. There’s five or six things. And again, personnel, understanding that’s got to be the best part of your game as an individual. Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist) understood it because he didn’t shoot the ball well. He knew, ‘Well, I’m not making a name shooting jumpers. I’m making a name playing defense, rebounding, being vicious.’ And we have some guys here that they got to take that on. But it’s harder to do that than to come down every fourth play and take a shot. That’s easy. So if you make it you can take two minutes off. Well, you can’t play that way. I mean, we’re in a dogfight every night we play.”
ON HIS ‘WE CAN CONTROL THE ENDING’ HAVING A WINSTON CHURCHILL FLAVOR AND WHAT’S HIS SOURCE ON THAT: “Um, Jerry, there’s things that pop in my mind. Most of the stuff is not stolen from anybody. I just wake up and am in the shower and Churchill comes to mind and … but you know, at any point, I’m trying to – look, we have meetings, I talk to them prior to practice and post-practice. Why? I gotta fill their minds more than the other stuff they’re reading or hearing, the phone calls they get or make. They make the call where the person is going to tell them what they want to hear. ‘You should be playing more! He shouldn’t sub you! The other guy needs to be subbed! And you gotta keep …’ Well, I gotta overwhelm all those things.
“So I’m trying every day to give them a message to get them to think, and that’ll be today’s message, and talk about, ‘What do you want this to become and then what are you willing to do?’ Each guy. And that includes the bench. I had a friend of mine call me today and he says, ‘You know, your benches are usually really into it, jumping up and down and checking guys and all this. Your bench seems dead.’ So we’ve been working on that. But for my friend to call me and say that, obviously he watches and he knows my team. This team will make it when we do great defensive stops and you see them on a great defensive play coming together and chest bumping and hugging each other and going nuts and clapping. Until they get to that point, again their emotion is all tied on how they’re playing, not how we’re playing, how they’re playing. And that’s part of what we do as coaches.
“You know, teams I’ve had – and again, some guys are not playing as well as they will at the end of the year. Well, neither did Anthony Davis. Anthony Davis wasn’t an impact offensively unless we threw him a lob or he blocked a shot, and he defended a little bit if the guy wasn’t real physical. But the offense came later, and that was like February, if you remember. We all have this vision of him when it was the end of the year, and he’s shooting right and left jump hooks. At the beginning of the year we didn’t throw him the ball. Had no strength, had no base, had no game in there. So, we just got to go, and we’re coaching them. And, you know, we’re going to have time here over the next three weeks — give them some time off for Christmas, but other than that.
“And again, let me tell you, Belmont they dropped a couple because a kid, a couple kids got hurt. Beat North Carolina, were up 10 or 11 at halftime. Rick Byrd is one of the great coaches in our country. He’s one of the great ones you don’t know about. What he’s done at Belmont to take that program from where it is, it’s never been done. And then to have success everywhere he’s taken the program, never been done before. And he’s been through the wards. He’s played all the great teams. He’s not coming in here, and his team won’t come in here thinking anything less than ‘Let’s try to beat these guys.’ ”
Perhaps the best part of our 8-3 start is now that we see where the improvement is needed, we can address it and no one has abandoned ship, so to speak. We just have to break some bad habits, according to Coach Cal.
Of UK’s 82-77 loss to North Carolina on Saturday, Cauley-Stein said, “We made a bunch of mistakes in the last five minutes and still had a chance to win. We just didn’t play through the mistakes. We were constantly making more mistakes because of the last mistakes you made. It just adds up.”
Calipari prescribed a “narrowing” of assignments in the final minutes of games. “What you do and what you absolutely don’t do,” he said in calling for a “more organized offense.”
That sounded like more orchestration from the bench. Not so, Calipari said.
“It’s just that they have a better idea of the sequences of how we’re playing,” the UK coach said. “If you don’t score right away, what do we do? ‘Well, I try to take it and score.’
“No. This is what we do, now. If they stop that, what do we do, how?”
Plan A leads to Option B while leaving open the possibility of Alternative C.
Such attention to detail could make all the difference for a team that has lost three games by a total of 14 points. All three opponents were ranked. None of the three games were played in Rupp Arena.
That might suggest Kentucky does not face a big problem.
Cauley-Stein swatted such a conclusion.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s a big problem that has to be solved. There’s no sugar-coating. We were ranked, too, so you’ve got to deal with it.”
Calipari again spoke of changing habits. Using his knack for catchy labels, he described Kentucky’s coach-player dynamic as “Our persistence versus their resistance.”
UK players were not rebelling, he clarified. They needed to break habits.
The Cats needed to be more aggressive in seeking transition opportunities on offense and dig deeper on defense.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to be a better defensive team,” he said. “That’s what we need to be, and we’re not.”