The adage goes; "You put fannies in seats with offense, but win championships with defense." That may not be as true today as it was 10-15 years ago, but even now, in a world of high octane offenses, a great defense and making free throws can carry a team through those sure-to-come games of tepid offensive outputs.
Saturday versus Alabama UK struggled to make shots in the first half, shooting only 30.8% (8-26), but Kentucky's defense limited 'Bama to only 29.4% field goal shooting. A game that could have been lost in the first half, instead was close enough (six points) for UK to climb back into the thick of things rather quickly in the second half; thanks to their smothering defense.
For the game, UK held the Crimson Tide to only 29.3% shooting. That represents the worst field goal percentage for a Kentucky SEC opponent since January 10, 2007 (Auburn - 27.9%). The Tide's most dangerous offensive weapon Alonzo Gee, plus Senario Hillman and Mikhail Torrance combined to miss 24 shots. If one takes away fabulous freshman JaMychal Green's 5-9 shooting, the rest of the team combined to go 12-49 (24.5%).
Obviously, UK didn't play great defense in the first half alone Saturday. In order to hold an opponent under 30% field goal shooting for a game, great defense must be played for the entire 40 minutes. Never more apparent was UK's commitment to defending with vigor as in the final 6:54 of the game:
Tied at 45, UK held Alabama to only two of eight shooting (25%), and forced four turnovers (a 23 turnover pace). Jodie Meeks and Darius Miller both recorded a steal, and the Cats nearly perfected another requisite trait if one dreams of cutting down the twine; making free throws down the stretch.
Over the final 4:33 of the game, UK made 12-14 free throws: Meeks 2-2, Perry Stevenson 7-8, and DeAndre Liggins 3-4.
Last year it was Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford salting away games from the charity stripe. I think their teammates were paying attention and taking notes, because this year Meeks and Company have made the most crucial of free throws at an exuberant rate.
I think Billy Gillispie has convinced this group that defensive execution and making free throws are the keys to their success. While it's not unusual for coaches to preach such sagacity to their charges, having the necessary powers of persuasion is a rarity. Let's face it, most players have to be coaxed into playing defense. Well, Gillispie must be a "coaxer" for the ages.
Big Blue has seemingly also taken on the personality of their coach; tough, aggressive, and relentless.
Saturday, faced with the loss of a fallen teammate (Ramon Harris) to an unknown ailment, the 'Cats decided to take on Harris' most impressive basketball attribute; unmerciful defense.
The 'Cats fought through screens (over, not under), disrupted passing lanes, and pressured the ball. The "help" was almost always there, and on time. They continue to harangue the shooter by blocking, or nearly blocking a high percentage of shots (UK was credited with nine blocks, although they had at least two more), with Darius Miller leading the way with three. They were frenetic, they were active, and they played defense like they meant it.
This team is maturing, and becoming a nightmare for opposing coaches to game-plan against. With freshmen Liggins and Miller both playing their most complete defensive games of the year versus Alabama, a gap has been plugged; both freshman have struggled at times on the defensive end this year, but the "light bulb" may have came on.
Jodie Meeks may be the most important convert that Gillispie has. Meeks has always been pretty good defensively, but not as consistent as most would like. That seems to have changed. His anticipation skills, and pure speed combine to form a deadly duo for opposing guards to deal with. He seems energized defensively, and he's looking to create chaos for the opponent, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Gillispie knows that getting his best player to "give it up" on the defensive end can sometimes lead the remaining players to focus even more on getting stops, and to be more precise in their execution. Is that what's happening here? We'll know soon.
Something I know now -- In Kentucky's five SEC games played to date, they are allowing only 58.4 points per game (63.5 on the year). For the year they are allowing only a 36.4% field goal percentage, but in SEC games UK's field goal % defense stands at 33.9. Impressive I'm sure, even to Ben Howland and Bob Knight.
Nearly as impressive is the discrepancy in how UK's opponents shoot for the year, versus how they shot the ball against Kentucky:
- Alabama -- Season FG% - 43.8, versus UK - 29.3% (-14.5)
- Vanderbilt -- Season FG% - 43.8, versus UK - 31.6 (-12.2)
- Georgia -- Season FG% - 42.1, versus UK - 31.3 (-11.0)
- Tennessee -- Season FG% - 45.3, versus UK - 37.9 (7.4)
- Auburn -- Season FG% - 43.6, versus UK - 38.8 (-4.8)
If that wasn't enough, UK's five SEC opponents have combined to go 30-102 (29.4%) from the 3-point line. And if one takes away Auburn's 10-26 performance, the other four teams have shot only 26.3% from beyond the arc.
Great numbers, even if the competition is experiencing a lull.
A Defensive Comparison
The '02-'03 "Suffocats", the group who I think is the best UK team this decade, won 26 straight games, swept the SEC regular season title, and won the Tournament championship. So no, I don't think this year's team is nearly as good as the '03 team, but the "Suffocats" are the standard-bearers for recent UK defensive excellence. So what better team to compare this squad to?
* '03 stats are for the entire SEC regular season.
'03 'Cats -- FG% Defense - 41.1, '09 'Cats - 33.9
'03 'Cats -- 3-point FG% Defense - 28.3, '09 'Cats - 29.4
'03 'Cats -- Points allowed - 58.9, '09 'Cats - 58.4
Even when their offense isn't clicking as it should; even when they commit mind-numbing turnovers at a rather rapid rate; even when their best defender goes down at half-time; even when Patterson has a lame middle finger which is heavily bandaged ... there is always defense.
UK's Moneymaker? Not as sexy as 54, but defense wins games too.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!