Scout/Jeff Drummond

Zone no longer a four-letter word for Kentucky Wildcats' John Calipari?

Struggles lead UK to utilize defense that has always made its coach cringe.

Any Kentucky Wildcats fan worth his or her salt has long known that "zone" holds a special place in the pantheon of four-letter words for John Calipari. 

To suggest the UK boss dislikes playing that form of defense does not begin to describe his level of disdain. He is a man-to-man lifer. 

But desperate times sometimes call for drastic measures, and Calipari has surprisingly loosened his stance on playing zones with this edition of the Cats.

On Monday during his weekly radio show, sounding like Henry Winkler's The Fonz attempting to force "I'm sorry" from his lips on 70s sitcom "Happy Days," Calipari conceded that it's going better than he expected.

"You know, I hate to tell you, our zone has been unbelievable, and it's given us a chance," he said. "I hate to say it. It just makes me... Look, when you play zone, it makes me feel like you're surrendering. My thing is 'Get after these dudes!' But they're, like, scoring. And then you go zone, and they don't score.

"I hate zone. I think it looks like you're surrendering. But you know what? We're long, we're active, and if they work in it, it's a great weapon."

Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC) has dropped three of its last four games and has been on a three-week run of the worst defense seen during Calipari's eight years in Lexington.

In recent seasons, if an opponent broke 40 percent from the field, it was almost newsworthy. Calipari's previous seven squads posted defensive field goal percentage figures of 37.8, 39.4, 37.4, 39.2, 41.1, 35.4 and 39.7. 

This year's team is allowing a robust 42.6 percent, which currently ranks 129th among Division I teams. And it's trending downward. Six of the last seven UK opponents dating back to the Auburn game have shot 47 percent or better. On Saturday in an 88-66 blowout at Florida, the Gators shot an eye-popping 68 percent in the second half.

With another youth-dominated roster and one lacking the typical rim protectors to camouflage weaknesses (UK has 136 blocked shots this season, well under its average of 239 the last two years) the situation has led Calipari to back off his no-zone stance and turn aspects of coordinating that defense over to assistant coach Tony Barbee.

During Monday's press conference in advance of Tuesday night's game against LSU, Barbee, standing in for Calipari, cited statistics which show the zone has been fairly effective. 

"When you grade the tapes the last two games we played, of the 30 possessions we’ve played it, we’ve gotten stops 21 of the 30 times," Barbee said. "So I think we would take that percentage any day of the week. And of the nine times they scored, the majority of the times they score was a breakdown on our end."

Barbee likes how Calipari has shown a willingness to be flexible with this particular team.

"It’s a good change of pace," he said. "The one thing we have are the attributes to be a fantastic zone team. We’re long, we’re athletic, we cover a lot of ground. It’s a work in progress like our man defense... But it’s a great change of pace for us if teams get it going against our man.”  

Added Calipari: "For a team that's not a zone team, I'll be honest, we've been pretty good."

Kentucky freshman center Bam Adebayo, a physical defender who has often struggled to adjust to the NCAA's new emphasis on eliminating contact by defenders, is taking a "whatever works" approach but sees opponents hesitate more against the zone.

“It offsets some of the other teams," he said. "So you know, they’ll get confused. They will think we’re in some kind of man, but we’re in zone. It’ll help us moving forward.”

The UK staff still believes getting the man-to-man defense right is the key to being a championship contender. It's especially important, Calipari said, when you have a team that thrives in transition scoring.

"Toughness, staying in a stance, guarding the whole possession... we gotta get back to all that," he said. "If you don't ever stop anybody, you're not going to get any easy baskets."


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