Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
As the annual rivalry game with Louisville approaches, the Kentucky Wildcats are making strides towards a Final Four-quality defense.
If you polled 100 Wildcat fans and asked them whether the current team was struggling more on offense or defense, I think (based on reading comments on ASoB and other places) that a majority would say "defense." From reading postmortems and comments the perception seems to be that this team lacks the kind of defensive cohesion that previous teams had.
To be sure, the Cats have had some tough times trying to stop opponent's from scoring. They've given up better than 1 point per possession against Maryland, Duke, Morehead St, Long Island, and Notre Dame. But since the loss in South Bend, the Cats have dominated their opponents and kicked their defense into another gear:
|Efficiency||Avg Opp. Offense||UK Defense||Difference|
|First 6 games||106.5||98.8||-7.7|
|Last 5 games||99.5||73.6||-25.9|
The first column shows how Kentucky's opponents have fared offensively to this point in the season using the average of their KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency. The second column is what the Cats held these teams to in their matchups. Through their first 6 games the Cats faced a lot of good offensive teams and held them - on average - to a tick under 8 points per 100 possessions below their average scoring efficiency. In their last 5 games they have faced teams with weaker offenses but have dominated them more thoroughly to the tune of nearly 26 points per 100 possessions lower than average. When you put it all together Kentucky has the 8th best defense in the country as measured by Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. As a point of comparison, last year's team had the 9th best defense by the same measure.
To be sure there are some considerations to be made - the first 6 games included 2 neutral site and 1 road game whereas the last 5 have all been at home. I also think that the relative differences in team quality extend far beyond their per possession scoring averages so that Kentucky's domination of their last 5 opponents is a function of the overall talent gap as much as defensive improvement. Additionally, their current KenPom ranking still contains a healthy dose of his preseason predictions so it is not completely based on actual games. Still, these numbers are heartening to look at.
There are a number of different places we could look to see how and why the Cats have been better, but I wanted to focus on one in particular - where the Cats are forcing opponents to take shots.
Courtesy of hoop-math.com, here is the distribution of opponents shot attempts against the Cats this season. For comparison I've included the same information for last year's teams. (presentation method shamelessly borrowed from Luke Winn's Power Rankings)
If you could force your opponent to shoot from anywhere on the floor, the best place would be in that 6-21 foot area inside the arc, but away from the basket. 2-pt jump shots are converted into baskets at roughly the same rate as 3-pt jumpers but they are only worth, you know, 2 points. Kentucky has been doing a good job at forcing their opponents away from the rim and off the 3pt arc and they've been doing so with basically the same success as last year's squad.
Now, keep in mind the 2011-12 rates are for the full season so I am *not* saying that this year's team is doing just as well as last year - they simply haven't faced the same level of competition to this point. What's important is that this team is showing evidence that the defensive process is on the right track. Cal's defenses have always been good at preventing opponents from attempting 3-pt shots and this team is displaying that same quality. They are keeping other teams away from the rim. The rebounding has gotten better (this year's 69.4% defensive rebound rate compares favorably to last year's 69.2%). In short, there is very good reason to believe that UK's defensive efficiency is based on solid fundamentals and should continue into conference play.
This bodes well for Saturday. Louisville has not shown a propensity for taking the ball to the basket: only 32% of their shots have come at the rim (for comparison, 41% of the Cats shots have come there). The Cards take a lot of 3's of course, so it will be important for Kentucky to continue their excellent ability to dissuade such shots but I like their chances in that area. If Kentucky can force Peyton Siva and company to take mid-range jumpers instead of 3's it will go a long way towards keeping the game close and giving them a chance for the win. I think the Cats are up for the job.