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4 keys to getting the Cats back on track

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It’s time for a reboot.

John Calipari, Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards

Now that a purple virus has crashed the system, it’s time to hit the reset button and work out the bugs that have mysteriously corrupted Kentucky Coach John Calipari’s well-tuned machine since the Wildcats knocked off Michigan State to open the new season.

On Tuesday night, the Evansville Purple Aces played the role of hacker and completely corrupted a framework that was built for another run through the SEC and a potential return trip to the Final Four. Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than a quick trip to the Genius Bar to repair the damage as the Wildcats are in need of a full reboot.

Here are four keys that just might get the Cats back into Safe Mode.

Offensive Flow

Calipari has openly talked about his preference for a random-style offense and why incoming freshmen often struggle early without the comfort of specific set plays. Coming from the high school ranks, the biggest adjustment is the shot clock (30 seconds in college basketball and 24 seconds in the NBA) that creates a greater sense of urgency to attack the basket.

Another new wrinkle this season is an extended three-point line as the NCAA has adopted the international distance of 22 feet, 1 34 inches. Both are constant reminders about time and spacing that can be a little unsettling for young players.

The Kentucky coach has also been quick to point out that randomness does not equate to just rolling the ball out and waiting for unexpected results. Instead, he would like to see players create their own rhythm and flow by becoming more engaged, either by setting screens, making cuts to the basket or exposing mismatch opportunities.

At this point, any new “tweaks” to the offense should include better spacing (balancing the floor) and more defined roles (you’re either a screener or a cutter) with less dribbling and a greater emphasis on ball reversal.

To establish better post play, UK will also need some of our bigs to stay “home” and work around the basket. Other than setting a high ball screen, there’s really no reason for 6-foot-11 Nick Richards to ever get more than eight feet from the basket.

Share The Ball

Poor shot selection also reared its ugly head against Evansville as UK went into full panic mode the last ten minutes of the game. While Cal’s Dribble-Drive principles are about getting to the rim and drawing fouls, it can also look very ugly at times with forced shots and off-balance, running one-handers that are heavily contested in traffic.

First and foremost, good shots should always be dictated by time and score. If you’re down late in the game and really need a bucket, then the coaching staff has to call out a play to get a good shot. It doesn’t just happen randomly with young teams. Running a quick hitter for Tyrese Maxey or Immanuel Quickley could sure stop the bleeding during crunch time.

Pegged as a good shooting team with plenty of “makers”, this team also must do a better job of making the extra pass and sharing the ball. In fact, a greater emphasis on ball reversal and the occasional skip pass can be every bit as valuable as a “penetrate and pitch” to set up shooters. The high-low passing game (high post to low post) would also help Richards, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina get more involved in the half-court offense.

Win 50/50 Balls

What can you say about a team that gets outrebounded by the likes of Georgetown College and Evansville? How about the number of 50/50 balls that were lost on Tuesday night due to lack of effort or being out of position?

Kentucky’s fall from grace this past week had nothing to do with talent or preparation, but everything to do with heart, toughness and the desire to take care of business. If UK learned anything from the Evansville game, it’s that you can’t give an experienced team second and third chances to steal games in Rupp Arena. The only “one-and-done” this team should be thinking about is grabbing every defensive rebound.

Winning 50/50 balls is all about sacrificing your body and understanding that a few extra bumps and bruises is just part of a winning effort. At this point, the only statistic that I’m concerned with is the number of floor burns per game. Maybe it’s time to share some Dennis Rodman highlights as part of this week’s film session.

Get Defensive Stops

Despite recent talk of this being one of Cal’s best defensive teams, Evansville sure did have its way with the Kentucky guards. Sure, we learned postgame that Ashton Hagans, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was not at 100 percent with a leg injury, but it was still surprising to see Evansville consistently beat us off the dribble with straight-line drives to the basket. To make matters worse, the Purple Aces also blew by defenders at-will on the baseline and had no fear in finding open gaps in the paint.

The fix is all about stopping the ball which starts at the change of possession. UK must force opposing guards away from the middle of the court with more ball pressure on the perimeter and a conscience effort to push playmakers away from the basket. In addition, rim protectors must be ready to block shots and be the first to the glass.

Evansville Coach Walter McCarty said the key to success against the Wildcats was “moving them around” on the defensive end and exposing Kentucky’s lack of depth. The game plan worked to perfection as the Purple Aces put on a clinic in how to spread the floor, make the extra pass and knock down big shots. If that sounds familiar, go back and watch McCarty and the 1996 NCAA champs play the exact same way.

Lesson learned.