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Keith Taylor: Renewed focus on defense has given UK a ‘sense of purpose’

After losing two of its first five Southeastern Conference games, Kentucky started getting defensive and it has shown during the past two weeks.

The 20th-ranked Wildcats (15-4, 5-2 SEC) got back to the basics on defense, especially after a disappointing 75-70 loss at Auburn earlier this month.

 Kentucky coach John Calipari likes the way his team is playing on the defensive end of the floor (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky coach John Calipari likes the way his team is playing on the defensive end of the floor (Bill Thiry Photo)

“(It’s been) just a renewed focus on it in practice,” Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee said Tuesday. “We just talked about getting back to our roots. We wanted to kind of change the direction we’re headed especially coming out of that Auburn game. It was a renewed sense of focus. Our sense of urgency plays back on defense because that’s where we take pride in. It creates a lot of offense for us.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari said on the SEC teleconference earlier this week the Wildcats have “played with more of a sense of purpose,” resulting in wins over Arkansas and Vanderbilt.

“They zeroed in on doing their own what their job was for our team,” the Kentucky coach said. “I think they took on responsibility, each player. Instead of trying to say, ‘Let one guy do everything,’ they took it on. And on top of it, for two games I think we really guarded full possessions for the first time. We had breakdowns now, but we were at least – the mentality was let’s guard an entire possession.”

Link: SEC Standings

In Kentucky’s last outing, Vanderbilt shot 32 percent from the field, committed 12 turnovers and made just five shots from long range. The Wildcats also limited the Commodores to just one shot in most instances, snagging 26 defensive rebounds, including eight by Derek Willis. Vandy also was limited to just 10 second-chance points.

Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe said the team’s communication has improved, allowing the Wildcats to become more effective on the defensive end of the floor.

“The main part is just talking,” Briscoe said. “You can never talk too much on defense, and coach (Calipari) thinks that when we’re talking, that’s when we’re at our best.”

Kentucky junior Marcus Lee added that timing also has been a factor in the noticeable improvement on defense.

“We just had the time,” he said. “The last couple of weeks, we’ve had game after game where we didn’t have the time to do all that battling. We couldn’t pull all that on our bodies. Now that we have the space and time to practice for a long amount of time, we can go back to playing five-on-five in practice and getting after each other.”

Briscoe admitted the Auburn loss served as a wake-up call, forcing the Wildcats to renew their commitment to getting better on defense.

“Just trying to get everybody to come together and just talk together as a team was one of the big things that we tried to get accomplished (after the loss to the Tigers),” Briscoe said. “I think that when we do do that our defense is better, our offense is better and we’re playing much better.”

With defense atop the team’s current agenda, Briscoe said being consistent on that end of the court will be a determining factor when it comes to playing time in moving forward.

“On this team that’s everybody’s main goal right now is talk, and if you want to play and be out on the court you have to be vocal,” Briscoe said.

Scouting Missouri

Kentucky has never lost to Missouri (8-0) and own a 4-0 record over the Tigers since they joined the league in 2013.

Missouri (8-11, 1-5) have lost four straight games going into Wednesday night’s matchup. Despite his team’s recent track record of success against the Tigers, Calipari said his team can’t expect a walk in the park.

“They had Georgia beat. They beat Auburn – a team that beat us – they were up 20 on Auburn,” Calipari said. “So they’re capable of beating us.”

Game tracker: Missouri at Kentucky, 9 p.m., Wednesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 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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