By LARRY VAUGHT
How do you define toughness?
Kentucky coach John Calipari knows how he wants his team to define it.
“You have to be tough. Toughness isn’t pushing and shoving,” said Calipari after Tuesday night’s win over Michigan State. “Toughness is playing before your man catches it. Getting on a body before the ball hits the rim. Setting a great screen and not moving.
“Being down, accepting the screen and running your man into screens. Diving on the floor. Taking charges. Not being late. Staying in a stance. It takes toughness. For young kids it’s hard.”
Kentucky’s defense certainly seemed to play tough in the 69-62 win when it limited Michigan State to 39 percent shooting from the field.
Freshman Kahlil Whitney took only three shots, scored five points, grabbed four rebounds and had one assist in 14 minutes. Yet Calipari loved how he played.
“What I loved is Kahlil guarded like he’s never guarded. People from here watched him play defense and couldn’t believe it was the same guy,” Calipari said. “I said you missed some shots, but you played so great defensively don’t worry about it.
“I told (freshman) Keion (Brooks), ‘You shot an air ball late, but it doesn’t matter.’ If you rebound and fight, that stuff happens. But they’re normal freshmen. That stuff hits them a little bit.”
With a lot of attention paid to what UK guards did in the win, Calipari said not to overlook grad transfer Nate Sestina. He played 31 minutes in his UK debut, went 3-for-4 from the field to score seven points, grabbed six rebounds, had two assists and did not make a turnover.
“I thought Nate Sestina saved us because EJ (Montgomery) got hurt,” Calipari said.
Junior Nick Richards did his part to save UK, too. He had been out since spraining his ankle 10 days ago against Georgetown College and his status going into the game was uncertain. Yet he played 25 minutes and had seven points and four rebounds. He was just 2-for-4 from the field but what he did to “save” UK was protect the rim.
“There’s no way he should’ve played 25 minutes. He hadn’t done anything – when did we play Georgetown? He literally hadn’t done anything in 10 days. For him to play that many minutes. He fought through so that was really good to see,” Calipari said.
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg liked what he saw, especially with Richards’ ballscreen defense.
“You can’t simulate his size and length in your preparation. He showed big with high hands and took away all vision for (Michigan State All-American point guard Cassius) Winston and still recovered on the pass. If he can make some jump hooks, watch out,” Greenberg posted on social media after the game.