The Kentucky Wildcats may be 7-1, but John Calipari knows there’s plenty of work to be done if they hope to keep that going into SEC play.
Over the next month, Kentucky has games vs Virginia Tech, UCLA, Louisville, at No. 24 Tennessee and at No. 9 Texas A&M.
Needless to say, there’s a ton of improvements the Cats must make if they are to even win half of those games. But before that big stretch comes up, Kentucky gets to face one of their easiest opponents left on the schedule this Saturday in a 3-6 Monmouth team.
That doesn’t mean this will be an easy game for Kentucky, but it is one in which Calipari hopes to see several improvements made.
On Thursday, Calipari spoke about three big changes he’s hoping to see from the Cats this month. One of them is more production from Wenyen Gabriel, who has struggled to find a role with this team so far.
However, Calipari thinks Gabriel can be for this team what Derek Willis was for last year’s squad.
“Wenyen’s (Gabriel) been great the last couple days. He’s really—trying to get him to play a little more like Derek Willis played, with more rebounding, hopefully better defense, but do the stuff Derek Willis did for us,” said Calipari). I think it’s making easy for him. Just be that guy.”
Another guy Calipari is hoping to get more from is PJ Washington, who has also struggled to find his niche thus far. While rebounding and post play seem to be PJ’s strengths, Calipari actually wants more shooting from his freshman forward, who has actually done well in this area during practice, but he’s yet to do so in games.
“He’s (PJ) just started. He’s doing things he hasn’t done, and he’s doing them for the first time, and he’s building his own confidence,” said Calipari. “And now he’s gotta go in the game and do it. I keep telling him, ‘We need you to shoot balls. I need you to shoot some jump shots. That’s what this team needs. If you don’t feel you’re making them, you don’t want to shoot them so then you start putting your head down and drive. Then you turn it over, run somebody is over, beg for a foul. No, you, if they give you shots you gotta take them. He’s beginning to do that now.”
Speaking of shooting, that’s something Calipari wants to see more from his entire team, specifically from three-point range. Right now, Kentucky is on pace to finish as one of the worst Division I teams in three-point shots attempted.
Calipari knows his team won’t survive if they keep that up, so he wants to see his Cats taking more shots from beyond the arch.
“Well, we’re trying to get to, instead of 14 or 15, we want to get to about 18, 19, 17, maybe 20 every once in awhile. You don’t want more than that because that’s not who we are, but we need to have that. And then we have to have—like Quade’s (Green) gotta scout out 3s. He’s one of our best 3-point shooters.
“I want Kevin (Knox) to shoot three, four, maybe five if he’s making them, but I really need him to get to the basket and drive the ball. We need Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) to scout out (3-point attempts). I just asked him, ‘Are you spending extra time? Are you getting in the gym?’ ‘Yeah.’ Well I said, ‘You’re not making any right now.’
“So you look at him and you look at Wenyen. Wenyen needs to shoot 3s. You look across the spectrum. Right now a guy that’s been shooting well in practice that we’ve been waiting for is PJ (Washington). So you get one more guy that can make perimeter shots—and they don’t have to be 3s.
“I mean, I always say this: If you’re going to shoot 30 3s a game—and we have teams in the country right now, their whole deal is, we’re shooting 30. You’re going to hit a game where you’re going to hit three. It’s just how it is. You’re not machines. ‘Well we make 40 percent every game.’
“Really? Alright. Then you have other teams who are gonna say, ‘You’re going to have to beat us shooting 2s, we’re not giving you 3s.’ So, I just would rather if you make us take more than we want, OK, but we’ll still – this is a different kind of team. I’ve had teams that have shot more 3s, but I think if you follow me, anytime we’ve shot 27, 28, 29, 30 3s we’ve lost that game. We’ve lost it.
“So, it’s not how we play, but I do want more than 12. We should be able to make six 3s a game, maybe seven, but six 3s should be what we get per game with the way this team can shoot.”
I don’t think there’s any doubt that this Kentucky team reaching its full potential will absolutely include more production from Gabriel, Washington and the three-point shot. Kentucky has gotten far too little production from those three (no pun intended) to this point in this season.
If even two of those things improve, this will become a team that actually has a chance to come out of SEC play with just 5-6 losses and go into March as a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But if none of those things improve, it’s hard to see the Cats even getting a top-five seed. Thankfully, we’ve still got several months for those areas to improve, not to mention Camp Cal this month.