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I've asked our writers two questions about Kentucky basketball, today about the defense. Here are their responses.
From time to time, I like to ask questions of the front-page authors for A Sea of Blue and publish their answers here for discussion. Today's questions are:
- If you were coach of this Kentucky team, what schematic change would you make on defense now that Nerlens Noel is lost.
- What is the biggest problem Kentucky has on defense, team-wise. Offense?
Greg Alan Edwards:
- To be completely honest, I don't feel like there is enough time to reboot anything. However, this team has played some zone, with moderate success. If I did anything (and again, I don't know if there is time), I would probably adjust to a zone-press against teams I thought I could get away with it. Rotate that with the man to man, but make it a loose man-to-man, so that we don't see foul trouble.
- Wiltjer must start and shoot threes. The three point shot is the great equalizer. We need perimeter shooters. If someone has to sit to allow us to go to a wide open offense with WCS patrolling the pain, then so be it. I would have 4 3pt shooters on the floor at all times.
Those are probably not great solutions, but there they are.
- I'd like to see Kentucky try to outlength the opponent: throw a lineup of Willie Cauley-Stein in the middle, with Wiltjer and Poythress on the floor at the same time. Most teams can't run out three credible offensive bigs, allowing Calipari to hide Wiltjer on the least threatening opposing player. Despite a huge height advantage, the Wildcats have been mediocre on the boards and losing Noel will hurt there as well. At least with some length on the court, Kentucky can stay credible on the glass.
- I don't think the Wildcats scare anyone on the perimeter. A Harrow-Mays backcourt is small and unathletic, and Archie Goodwin hasn't taken to playing defense as quickly as I envisioned. The team lacks a Kidd-Gilchrist/Liggins/Miller type patrolling the perimeter, and it hurts, especially once Noel gets out of position trying to defend the paint. Likewise, on offense, Calipari lacks the playmaking ballhandler that has made past iterations of Kentucky's offense run so smoothly. I long for the days of Marquis Teague, let alone Brandon Knight or John Wall. Offensively, I wish the team would push tempo more. I believe both Goodwin and Poythress aren't natural "think, then do" players, which easily puts them out of sync in halfcourt sets. While the Wildcats don't have depth, they do have the athleticism to push the ball and try to collect easy transition points. Let 'em run, Cal.
- If I were coach of this team, I'd be under indictment. For what, I'm not sure, but I am sure I would have committed several felonies by this point in the season.
Defensively, though, if I were coaching this group, I would simply go to a collapsing 2-3 zone. Put Willie Cauley-Stein in middle, Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress on the back wings, with whichever guard combination happens to be in the game, out top. And I would then threaten with life-altering consequences whoever didn't crash the boards on the shot.
Obviously, without Nerlens UK is vulnerable in the middle (against both penetration and board crashers), and although WSC has 33 blocks on the year, and is fairly athletic for a 7-footer, he's not the intimidating presence of Nerlens, and he doesn't possess the basketball instincts Nerlens was lucky enough to develop. His footwork is not as good as Nerlens' also, which impacts both his ability to defend and score.
But in that scheme, it would be necessary to put Wiltjer out on an island, alone, guarding a quadrant of the zone, and that's a dangerous proposition, because the interior of the zone has to be ready for Wiltjer's man to try and take him off the dribble. This makes Wiltjer's baseline a vulnerability, which is a pitfall of UK playing the 2-3.
Another downside occurs when Jarrod Polson is in the game. He's undersized, and not laterally quick, but, he plays his behind off. And because of that I can deal with JP's physical shortcomings, especially with this group of motivation-challenged group of players ... and maybe, just maybe, Polson's energy and hustle will wear off on some of his teammates.
Because of a concern about fouls, and stamina, along with UK's weak interior, the choice of which defense to play is an easy one (at least in my view). Cal, though, doesn't like to play zone, but he's nothing if not flexible. He also knows his players better than anyone on the planet, which puts him at a sizable advantage when trying to figure out how to best keep the 'Cats from being embarrassed in any given game.
- I think I answered the first part of question two in my response above, so I'll check in with what I think is UK's biggest problem on the offensive end of the floor.
Of late, the answer to that question is turnovers. Way too many turnovers, way too many unforced errors. Against Tennessee on Saturday, UK allowed the Vols to score 23 points off turnovers.
After turning the ball over only nine times at Ole Miss, UK has seemingly become dazed and confused when it comes to valuing possession, as the 'Cats have turned the ball over with regularity, posting 19, 17, 17, and 15 turnover games in the last two-and-a-half weeks.
In four of UK's last five games, Wildcat opponents have outshot Kentucky by an average count of 56-to-48. When the 'Cats are shooting 48 percent and UK's opponents are making 39 percent of their shots, not valuing possession by taking care of the basketball is costly, most noticeably on the scoreboard.
Example: Kentucky has posted a 5-3 record over the last eight games, and in five of those contests -- losses to UT, Florida, and Alabama, and tighter than they should have been victories over Texas A&M and LSU -- Kentucky has given up 92 points off turnovers, while scoring only 59. That's an average of 18.4 points for the bad guys, and only 11.8 for the boys in blue.
This year, UK's margin for error is slim. Much slimmer than it has been since Calipari arrived four years ago. And careless ball handling, coupled with weak transition defense, can't be mitigated by sheer athleticism and an undying will to win.
Just as disconcerting as UK's turnovers issues is the play of Alex Poythress, and his lack of involvement in the offense. On the season, AP averages taking only seven shots per game. He shoots 58 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. That does not compute, especially on a team that struggles to score more often than it should.
And in a case of terrible timing, AP has failed to score in double-figures in his last five games.
Additionally, Poythress is one of UK's better free throw shooters at 71.2 percent, but because of his unique ability to completely disappear on the offensive end, he attempts an average of only 4.4 free throws per game, and has attempted double-figure free throws only twice all season.
Poythress simply HAS TO become more active on the offensive end. Feed him the ball, good things happen when he gets touches.
- If Saturday’s game showed anything, it’s that the Cats have gotten used to having a human eraser behind them in team defense. Time and again players were beaten by their men for easy baskets. Part of that may have been the overall malaise that has gripped the team. Part may be the need to adjust to not having Noel around. Regardless, Kentucky seems caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (so to speak). Noel’s injury and some lineup changes have left the Cats rather (gulp!) unathletic. Wiltjer and Julius Mays are both a step slow and while Polson is a good on-ball defender, he isn’t going to be causing havoc swooping into passing lanes or blocking shots any time soon. Stein has a great motor, but is not an adept post defender.
I’d like to see the Cats move into a 2-3 zone defense for most of the game. Zones work well when a team lacks quickness and good on-ball skills. It might be counterintuitive, but I’d consider putting Wiltjer in the middle of the zone, even when WCS is in the game. Cauley-Stein is quicker, and putting Wiltjer in the middle would help mask his inability to stay in front of driving offensive players.
- Kentucky’s biggest problem defensively has been, frankly, a lack of effort. Transition defense has been poor because players fail to get back. In the half court sets, players are slow to pick up switches and at times seem to ignore obvious things happening on the Court to avoid being in a position to be scored on. It is disappointing. I don’t know how Cal can change that mentality if he hasn’t already. This point has been made before, but it bears repeating. This team is too thin to threaten players with the bench. Players make inexcusable mistakes and get yanked, only to return to the floor a minute or two later because Cal has no choice.
Offensively, the Cats lack identity. Noel was far and away the team’s best player, a fact the whole team seemed to recognize. Yet he was never going to be the team’s go-to scorer, which seems to have created a vacuum. The three most talented offensive players deal with this in different ways. One awkwardly tries to fill the space even though he is ill suited to do so. One shrinks at seemingly every turn. The third seems to fade in and out, sometimes asserting himself, sometimes not. This puts Ryan Harrow in an awkward position trying to run the offense. There is no pecking order, and it is hurting the Cats.
Glenn Logan: (Note: I wrote these down before I read the others):
- Schematically, I would play a much more aggressive game and take more risks. I would encourage attempts to get steals, I would urge players to push opposing guards further out, and I would try to run some traps on the wing.
I'd ask the post and wings to aggressively deny the wing entry into the post, and try to front post players and force the guards to try lobs over the top.
Finally, I would mix in a few zone looks with the man to man, just to create confusion. No more than four or five possessions per half of zone.
- Intensity. This team is not intense or aggressive enough in their half-court defense. They play the game like it is a pick-up game and not high-level college basketball.
Kentucky needs to show the fire the possess on the defensive end first. Forget the offense, just defend these guys like they insulted their collective mothers. Take pride in your effort and make sure that if somebody scores, it was because he made a tough shot, not because you forgot to rotate, or gave him the old, ¡Olé!
Have some pride, and take every basket scored against you as a personal insult.
Offensively, ball movement is one problem, turnovers another. Too many times, the team seems to dribble around to nowhere. Another problem is picking up the dribble -- don't. Pick up the dribble when you are ready to pass, and not before. Don't let the opponent dictate how you play.
Most of Kentucky's live turnovers are soft passes that are picked off, or poor post entries. That shouldn't happen at this level, and at this point in the season. They have to clean that up, or it will kill them. Soft passes are a particular problem with this team.
Let's hear what you think, Big Blue Nation!