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Keith Taylor: Calipari, Wildcats ‘zero in’ on defense going into showdown with Florida Gators


John Calipari has been known to scale back on intense practices during the final month of the regular season. Such hasn’t been the case closing out the first week of February this season.

This week, work behind the scenes has been “very hard” and “more physical” as Calipari tries to whip his team into shape for a deep run in the postseason.

 Alex Poythress and the Wildcats have focused on defense this week going into Saturday's game with Florida (Tammie Brown Photo)

Alex Poythress and the Wildcats have focused on defense this week going into Saturday’s game against Florida (Tammie Brown Photo)

“I really zeroed in on our defense,” the Kentucky coach said Friday. “The only offense we really worried about was what we were running against our defense. I’m trying to get guys back to, you know, how we have to play.”

Kentucky has spent the past three days “soul searching” following an 84-77 loss at Tennessee earlier this week and has tried to put the disappointing loss behind them. The Wildcats (16-6, 6-3) blew a 21-point lead and watched as the Volunteers dealt the squad a second consecutive setback.

“They were all really mad about that,” Calipari said of the loss to the Vols. “It was really silent on the plane.”

Kentucky returns home to take on Florida Saturday following two straight road encounters and hopes to get back on track.

Junior forward Marcus Lee said the practice sessions following the disappointing setback at Tennessee have been intense. Lee said it “takes a special kind of team to give up 21 points and lose the game.”

“We’re getting back to who we truly are and back to our defensive ethics,” Lee said. “We kind of slipped from that. That’s kind of something that we’re getting back to in practice is being tough on defense.”

Calipari said the Wildcats are “getting beat on the bounce right away” resulting in most of the breakdowns on the defensive end of the floor.

“We’re stretching out too much when we don’t need to be,” Calipari said. “We’re not scrambling and rotating.”

Not only have the players been taking responsibility to two straight setbacks, Calipari and the coaching staff have delved down deep searching for answers.

“You’ve gotta look at yourself,” Calipari said. “I mean, as a coach I’ve gotta look at myself and just say, ‘OK, what are we doing? How are we doing it? Is there a better way of doing it?’ You’ve gotta ask questions and sometimes you’ve gotta ask yourself a different question than you did last week. So, as I look at this and they look at this, I come back to, ‘OK, I’ve gotta zero in on what we have to have to win.’”

In addition to struggles on defense, Calipari also is looking for improvement in the rebounding department.

“It’s just frustrating when teams are getting three and four shots at a basket,” Calipari said.

Calipari said Lee had a good practice Thursday, giving him hope the junior forward can revert back to being consistent under the basket like he was during the first half of the season.

Marcus Lee was really good (Thursday),” he said. “He was really, really good to the point of like the old Marcus Lee from earlier this year.”

Although the Wildcats haven’t measured up to last year’s Final Four squad, Calipari isn’t feeling sorry for himself and realizes the task at hand.

“I’m not like woe is me,” he said. “Ain’t no way. It’s just figure it out and accept the challenge of this and know that we can beat anyone in the country (and) we can lose to anybody in the country.”

Scouting the Gators

Florida carries a two-game winning streak into the contest and is coming off an 87-83 win over Arkansas Wednesday night.

The Gators (15-7, 6-3) have gotten a boost in scoring from senior Dorian Finney-Smith who has tallied 46 points in the past two games, including 24 in a win over the Razorbacks earlier this week.

Calipari said the Gators “look like some of my old UMass teams.”

“(They’re) old school,” Calipari said of Mike White’s squad. “I think now they’re buying in and playing with confidence. We’re playing a team that’s playing as well as they’ve played all year.”

Game tracker: Florida at Kentucky, Saturday, 4 p.m. TV/Radio: CBS Sports (Channel 27), 98.1 FM, WBUL

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com


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