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No. 4 Wildcats show first glimpses of change following last week’s loss to Michigan State

Marcus Lee blocks a shot in Kentucky's 87-49 win over Robert Morris on Sunday. His start to the game did not go as well. (Photo by James Pennington)

Marcus Lee blocks a shot in Kentucky’s 87-49 win over Robert Morris on Sunday. His start to the game did not go as well. (Photo by James Pennington)


Crises precipitate change, and it’s now been almost a week since the first crisis of Kentucky’s season. It was the 78-74 loss to Michigan State, one the Wildcats nearly came back to win, an outcome that John Calipari said would have been even worse because it would have let his team off the hook for the mistakes it made that it needed to learn from.
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Instead, UK lost—it never even took the lead in the game; the one tie at 66 was quickly resolved when Michigan State scored five points in the next 30 seconds—and here we are. Sunday’s 87-49 win over Robert Morris showed that the young Wildcats were willing to learn from what ailed them.


So what’s changed? Context should be considered, of course. The biggest thing the No. 4 Wildcats worked on in practice between Tuesday’s Michigan State and Sunday’s Robert Morris games—the biggest layoff of the season so far—was transition defense, and it was much better Sunday. Of course, it was against Robert Morris and not Michigan State, and Colonials coach Andrew Toole said after the game his team isn’t a good transition scoring team to begin.


Still, defense in transition was the focal point of the week’s practices, and it was improved. Robert Morris didn’t have a single fast-break point five days after Michigan State’s Keith Appling and Gary Harris burned the Wildcats down the court trip after trip.


“That was a main point in all of our practices, just transition defense, making sure we’re focused on getting back,” Aaron Harrison said.”We’re a young team, so we just gotta make sure we’re always focused on the little stuff.”


The Robert Morris game wasn’t perfect, though, and perhaps the best person to ask about its imperfection was Marcus Lee. Lee got his first career start in place of Willie Cauley-Stein, because Cauley-Stein had not been winning opening tip-offs and Lee, though two or three inches shorter, is known for his leaping ability.


Calipari knew, though, that Cauley-Stein would re-enter the game in short order, and to help Lee get his feet under him in his first start, Calipari went ahead and drew up the first play the Wildcats would run on offense and ran it in practice to drill it home. They ran it seven times in a row, all to help Lee get his feet under him.


Once Lee won the opening tip, the play was set in motion, ripe to go according to plan. Instead, Lee ran a completely different play. Cauley-Stein made his way to the scorer’s table to check in, and with 51 seconds left, Lee left the game at the first dead ball (on a foul he committed).


“I did everything the total opposite,” Lee said. “In my head, I was like, ‘Why did I just do that? We just did that. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, why did I mess that up?’ I have no idea. It was just a total mind lapse.”


Said Calipari: “Marcus, love him to death, but he kind of panicked a little bit. You have to understand that the shoot-around we ran the first play seven straight times so he could do it. We got the tip, we went down to run that same play that we ran seven straight times, and he ran the wrong way. He spun around, he looked around. But he’s such a great kid. He’s trying.”

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