It's not called 'Winning ugly', it's called Defense

"She's not my wife, she's just the girl I love who lives with me who agreed to marry me in a ceremony performed in front of friends and family and by a minister."

Doesn't make much sense, does it?

How about this one?

"Sure they went 3-0 over the last two weeks and held teams to 29.2% shooting (19.7% from three-point range), but this team isn't very good and gets lucky to win."

Head scratcher. Let's face it, there are more ways to win than just scoring points. Saturday's 61-49 punishment of the Cardinals proves that. Obviously, any fan of the game would want to see both a fluid offense and a stifling defense. And with a little more seasoning and the right mix and rotation, there is certainly the chance that this Kentucky team could do that.

But for now, UK fans need to get over the offensive issues and embrace the fact that this year's Wildcats play better team defense than any edition since the 2003 SuffoCats. And what's more, they can get even tougher. Here's how.

Kentucky doesn't have a bruiser at the four spot, it's true. He's playing at UNC or Auburn or any number of schools where players who chose not to suit up in blue reside that UK fans have taken a certain rueful glee of documenting. But with an abundance of long-armed athletes willing to hurl themselves at the basketball, this year's Cats show that even open shots are being contested, one of the basic tenets of Tubby Smith defense.

Ball-line defense is not well understood by John Q. Bluefan. This isn't meant as a Rumsfeldian moment of "Here's what you don't get," but indulge me nonetheless.

One huge key to the ball-line defense is never allowing your man to get by you. This eliminates the need for help defense and being out of position to rebound. It's about facing the defender at all times and forcing him to pass the ball. Ideally, then, quick defenders crash the passing lanes for deflections, theoretically leading to easy fast breaks.

Thus far, this team's only real defensive deficiency since the Memphis game has been in that final stage. It does not yet force enough turnovers. However, the face-up defense has been intense; as choking as any played since Keith Bogans left the floor in March 2003.

Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford are rarely caught out of position defensively, and the freshmen -- especially Michael Porter and Derrick Jasper -- are above-average man-to-man defenders already, just a few months into their careers.

Additionally, much of what the defense has done right is put the ball into the hands of players in positions they are unaccustomed to or struggling in.

To wit, Juan Palacios of Louisville is much lauded for his outside shooting, averaging 36% from three-point range. However, this is misleading, as he has rarely attempts mroe than 3 a game -- he had not, in fact, attempted more until Saturday's 0-for-4 outing against UK. Louisville swingman Terrence Williams is shooting 15% from deep. Kentucky coaxed him into shooting five times from behind the arc, and he hit just one. Andre McGee had played a total of 11 minutes since the opener due to injury, taking one shot against UMass. UK 'let' him shoot 0-for-4 from three.

So when someone tells you, "Well, UL just missed open threes," don't buy it. Kentucky put the ball in the hands of the team's worst shooters, or most reluctant shooters, and dared them to take it. Unsurprisingly, they misfired more than they made. This isn't "luck," it's defense, folks.

But this game was not just about bad or unlikely shooters overshooting, it was also about getting the good shooters to miss. And miss. And miss. Jerry Smith and Edgar Sosa -- by far Louisville's best outside threats -- went 3-for-14.

This isn't a new phenomenon, either. Indiana's Lance Stemler is shooting 43% from deep this year. Against UK? Zero for six. Rod Wilmont, a 40% shooter from three? Two hits in seven tries. This isn't that hard to figure out, people. These Cats scratch and claw and harass through screens.

Not to be lost, of course, is that this Cardinals team is really bad and really lost. That's a lethal combination. That Kentucky could win by 12 without anything offensively from Randolph Morris (2 points, 4 fouls) and Joe Crawford (5 points, but 2-of-9 shooting) tells you something about Louisville, for sure.

And I'm not going to sit here and say that being outrebounded and taking 15 fewer shots than every opponent is going to cut it offensively long-term. It won't. We saw against North Carolina that outstanding defense may be enough to overcome mediocre to bad teams, but against top-5 (i.e. potential Final Four) teams, putting the ball in the cup is also going to be necessary.

But there was improvement to cheer. UK had 13 assists to 13 turnovers, the lowest of the latter number since beating Depaul in Maui. Plus, the reserves came to play big time, scoring 33 points and outhustling the Louisville team throughout.

I advise Cats fans to stop the hand-wringing over the offense. Yeah, it's painful at times to see shots clanging off the rim. Crawford needs desperately to take shots he can hit rather than open the game with long three-point misses. And Jasper's reluctance to shoot is reminiscent of Rajon Rondo's freshman year.

But the Cats are through the non-conference wringer. Not to downplay games against Santa Clara (just beat Stanford) on Tuesday and UMass (just beat Louisville as well) next Friday. A down-shifted Kentucky could easily stumble back into bad habits. That said, now there are winnable games for a few weeks that allow for some development of offense and rotations. And I think Tubby is not above shuffling the lineup again if the shooting woes linger.

But such is the state of the Kentucky defense right now that there is time to work out the kinks. Compare that to last season, when the defense never in any game looked as good as it has the last two weeks and there was no time for anything other than taking one's heart medication. This team is better, potentially darn good in fact. And it's all about the defense.

Watch the Cats repeat that over and over and, who knows, maybe even the doubters will begin to believe.

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