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Monday, January 20, 2014

Kentucky still fighting through slow starts nearly two-thirds through the regular season

Texas A&M is the only SEC team with a win over John Calipari in Rupp Arena, and the Aggies visit Lexington on Tuesday. (File photo by Jon Hale)

Texas A&M is the only SEC team with a win over John Calipari in Rupp Arena, and the Aggies visit Lexington on Tuesday. (File photo by Jon Hale)

 

Somehow stammering in the first five minutes of games lately hasn’t cost Kentucky a game—not directly, anyway—and even though the No. 14 Wildcats long since identified that slow starts are one of their biggest problems, they haven’t quite found a way to fix it yet.

 

It happened again Saturday, when Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes conceded the opening tip to Willie Cauley-Stein—Stokes literally did not jump for the tip, instead instantly breaking to get back on defense—before scoring the game’s first six points uncontested, forcing John Calipari to call a timeout down 6-0 with 17:23 to play.

 

Once Kentucky gets going, it’s been fine. The Wildcats have lost four games by a combined 16 points, the last an overtime game in which the home team, Arkansas, won on a buzzer-beating put-back dunk. Kentucky hasn’t been throughly trounced yet this season, no game so far in 2013-14 in which the Wildcats were never in it. They’ve managed to recover from the handful of slow starts, and that’s fine.

 

That doesn’t mean Calipari and his staff want the slow starts to continue. For one, assistant coach John Robic has had trouble diagnosing the slow starts. The slow start against Tennessee had a lot to do with how little the Wildcats could prepare for the Volunteers’ physicality in practice, Robic said.

 

“If we had the answer to that question, we’d be good,” Robic said. “You know what, it seems like we’re ready to play. Pre-game warmups have been really good. I think it was a carry-over of a really good shoot-around that morning. Most teams don’t shoot that morning for a noon game. We typically do, but we don’t go that long. Twenty-five minutes, and we thought we were ready.

 

“I don’t think that they were prepared themselves enough for how physical the game was going to be,” Robic said. “That’s something that you really can’t simulate, and that was certainly the case, especially early in the game.”

 

As the Wildcats try to kick their snooze button-slapping habit, the next team in town is Texas A&M. The Aggies aren’t what they were last year; statistically speaking, their defense has been much better than last season and their offense has been equally worse. What they were last year was a perfectly average team that came in to Rupp Arena, had a player go off for a career game (what would be a career game for most everyone who ever played college basketball, probably) and hand John Calipari his first home SEC loss as the Kentucky coach. That player was Elston Turner, and he was a senior last year. He won’t be around Tuesday night to repeat his 40-point performance.

 

But the Aggies’ defense was nothing to write home about last year unless you write home about things like average Division I men’s basketball defensive teams. This year’s team is significantly better in that half of the court. Last year’s Aggies ranked 91st in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and this year’s is 30th. Billy Kennedy’s team this year ranks 32nd in the country in 3-point defense, 59th in 2-point defense and 55th in turnover percentage, creating a turnover on 20.7 percent of its defense possessions. All of those standings are out of 351 Division I teams.

 

Even though Texas A&M has trouble scoring—it keeps the tempo slow and is 259th in adjusted offensive efficiency, scoring 99.6 points per possession adjusted to the average Division I defense—and even though the Aggies are small across the court, Kentucky hasn’t proven it’s past its slow starts, and just because slow starts haven’t necessarily turned into slow middles or slow endings doesn’t mean they can’t.

 

The Wildcats haven’t even kicked the habit between games.

 

“We just have a tendency to start off slow,” James Young said. “Even in practice, we start off a little slow. So it’s just something we’ve gotta work on.”

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