Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: Defensive Improvement

Dilip Vishwanat

The Wildcat defense has struggled (relatively speaking) for much of the season, but in recent weeks has put together some of it's best games of the year.

Yesterday I looked at how Kentucky's offense has been performing quite well since the beginning of tournament season.  Today we'll look at the defensive side of things.

Preventing scores has been an issue for most of the season for the Cats.  They hung around the 30-45 range in Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Defensive Rating for much of the season (I don't think there's anyway to look that up, you'll just have to take my word for it.  I've kept an eye on it all season).  Their play of late has been better though - enough to get them up to 25th.

Just like yesterday, what follows are graphs showing a running 5 game average of UK's defensive performance in each of the 4 Factors. I've also included the average of opponents' season-long offensive numbers for each category (For example, UK's eFG% defense is plotted against the average of their opponents' eFG% for the season). This will help give some intuition on how the Cat's performance matches up against the offenses they've faced.

The horizontal axis marks the 5th game in the particular group being averaged. For example, the first Florida game on the graph marks the average of the Florida game in Rupp along with the four games preceding it. The last point on the graph is the most recent five games: the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament.



Shooting:

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This part has actually gotten worse recently which is surprising because defending shots is such a big part of what Cal does defensively.  You can't really pin it on the opponents since, for the better part of the season, UK has faced teams that collectively shoot the ball at pretty much the same clip.

Turnovers:

5gamedefto_medium

I almost didn't include turnovers, because one of the constants of a John Calipari defense is that they don't force them.  Kentucky doesn't pressure the ball with the intent to steal or force passes that can be picked off.  Steals are created as a matter of opportunity and not design.  There is nothing here that is either noteworthy or of concern.


Rebounding:

5gamedeforb_medium

Well now, look at that.  This is the biggest difference in recent defensive performance.  Kentucky is completely shutting down the ability of their opponents to get 2nd chances to score and that improvement is quite dramatic.  Three games in particular are driving this - Florida at the end of the season, and the NCAA Tournament games against Kansas St and Wichita St.  In the SEC Tournament the Cats were solid but not as spectacular as in the other three games mentioned.  Louisville is a very good offensive rebounding team, so continued success will be crucial to getting the season sweep of the Cards.

Free Throws:

5gamedefftr_medium

Oof.  Defending without fouling is another staple of a Calipari defense but recently the Cats have been happy to send opponents to the line nearly as much as they've gone themselves.  Notice that it really jumped up around the time conference play started, reaching its apex during the SEC Tournament.  No, I'm not commenting on SEC officials.  Not at all.  The games @Florida, LSU, and Georgia are what are primarily driving the jump at the end.  In their last 3 games UK has defensive FT Rates of 32.1 (Florida), 22.6 (K State), and 36.7 (WSU) which is much more in line with what we should expect from the team, so ultimately I'm not worried that this represents any kind of fundamental change in how they are playing.

Wrapping it up with a Big Blue Bow

The biggest driver of the recent defensive success has come from rebounding.  That's a bit different from how Cal's teams usually succeed defensively, as they are typically solid-but-not-spectacular in this respect. I'm not sure how much of the recent improvement is due to a schematic change, opponents choosing not to go after missed shots, and simple random variation.  Everything else looks pretty much like I would expect it too, both from what they've done all season and from what Cal's teams typically do defensively.  That was good enough to beat Louisville in December and it should be good enough to beat them tonight, though obviously nothing is guaranteed.

Bonus Extra Graph!  Assists!

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Wild Weasel asked about assists in the post about offense, so here's a graph showing UK's assist rate (Assists divided by Made Field Goals).  For comparison I've included the 2012 team's running average for the entire season.  The biggest takeaway to me is that both teams were on an upward trend at the same point in the season which I would think is a good indicator of something: better passing, better shooting, better chemistry, all three?.

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