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Kentucky Basketball: Calipari's Calling Card - Defense

Kentucky has had some powerful offensive teams under John Calipari. But the hardest thing to get players to do in college is play defense. Calipari has done it better than almost anybody.

Andy Lyons - Getty Images

Everybody loves offensive basketball. It's fun to watch running, dunking teams, or teams that move the ball great and get lots of open looks from three, scoring a bunch of points. That kind of basketball excites the crowd.

What excites college coaches, though, is teams that play great defense. A casual observer, knowing how AAU teams are almost exclusively focused on the offensive game, might expect that the young, tender, just-out-of-high-school teams at Kentucky might struggle with defense. Of course, anyone who's watched Calipari and the Wildcats over the last three years know that would be a misjudgment.

Consider these key defensive statistics:

Year DeFG% D2pt% D3pt% Blocks 3ptA%
2012 42 39.6 31.8 20.2 29
Div 1 rank 1 1 59 1 52
2011 44.2 42.4 32.4 15.5 29.7
Div 1 rank 9 8 58 1 72
2010 43.1 41.1 31.3 17.8 33.8
Div 1 rank 3 6 47 1 225

What we have here is the defensive side of effective FG%, 2-point shooting %, 3-point shooting%, blocks, and 3-point attempt%.

Kentucky has ranked in the top ten every single year Coach Cal has been here in 3 of these key statistics -- defensive eFG%, 2-point%, and blocks. In fact, Kentucky has been #1 in the nation in blocks 3 years running - an impressive statistic that very few people mention when analyzing the Wildcats. That speaks to the tremendous size and length that Kentucky recruits, a well-known focus of Calipari. The presence of Willie Cauley-Stein and the ubuer-shot blocking Nerlens Noel suggests that Kentucky may well do a four-peat in this statistic.

There are two areas that Kentucky could improve upon, just at a casual glance -- 3-point% and 3-point attempts. There are things, though, that argue against those necessarily being bad stats:

  1. A 3-point shot is generally a lower percentage shot, and;
  2. If you're taking 3's, you're not taking 2's closer to the basket.

What is important, though, is the 3-point FG% in that scenario. If you are going to allow more 3's, you have to make sure that they are challenged shots. So is Kentucky getting that done? Consider this:

Year D3pt% Div I average Delta
2012 31.8 34.3 -2.5
2011 29.7 34.4 -4.7
2010 33.8 34.2 -0.4

So what we see is that Kentucky has held teams below the Division 1 average for 3-point shooting every year, but clearly, the last two teams have been better at this than the 2010 team. That also shows up in 3-point attempts -- UK allowed a ton of them, more than most Division I teams, in 2010, and barely held them under the D1 average. Both statistics improved markedly in the following two years.

From my perspective, these 3-point stats could stand some improvement, but there are a lot of variables associated with how you close out on 3-point shooters -- sometimes, that can lead to easy baskets inside. It looks to me like Calipri has chosen to focus on the things that young players are likely to do better, and just live with 3-point numbers that may not look as dominant as their other defensive stats.

How will this year stack up? Based on what I think I have seen of this young team, I think we can expect more of the same.