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Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats Versus The Press

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How much affect will a full-court press have on Kentucky, particularly with their back-up point guard, Jarrod Polson, as the starter?

Jarrod Polson will be a key factor in how well Kentucky handles the Eagles' pressure.
Jarrod Polson will be a key factor in how well Kentucky handles the Eagles' pressure.
Jason Szenes

I have seen some angst about how the Kentucky Wildcats will handle the press, mostly in connection with the Louisville Cardinals. When Maryland pressed Kentucky a bit near the end of the game, the Wildcats seemed to struggle a tiny but, but not as much perhaps as I would have expected. Tomorrow night, Kentucky gets the full measure of a press defense when the Morehead St. Eagles come to town, led by former Unforgettable Sean Woods.

There are really not that many teams that utilize a full-court press to the level of Rick Pitino and his disciples. Arkansas Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson will use it quite a bit, as did his mentor and former boss, Nolan Richardson. Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan will occasionally utilize a press, but nothing like what we see from Louisville and other teams coached by former Pitino players and assistants.

Tomorrow, however, we are going to get a full-fledged dose of it, so it will be a fine starting point to see how the young Wildcats team manages press offense. At minimum, it will clue us in as to how well the Wildcats take short-term instruction, because you can bet that UK hasn't been working on this for too long.

Breaking the press is not really difficult, it just requires discipline and patience. The bad news is that Kentucky will be short on both due to youth and inexperience. But essentially, here's the first, and most important commandment of press-breaking:

  • Keep the ball in the middle of the floor and away from the sidelines.

If you can do that, you will succeed. It's that simple. Unfortunately, if it was that simple Pitino and Woods wouldn't continue to use the press. The reality is that getting the ball into the middle of the floor against the press can be very difficult and time consuming.

Back in his days at UK, Pitino mostly utilized the zone press in the 1-2-1-1 and 2-2-1 variants (you may remember the White and Blue presses). Those presses tend to be subject to "plays" or "press breaks," essentially formulas that allow teams to defeat the press with specific reactions and passes, and they aren't that hard to teach.

In recent years, Pitino has gone to a match-up press which is a zone press with man principles, just like the match-up zone he often plays on defense. This press is much more difficult to teach well, and that's one of the reasons Pitino doesn't recruit as many players likely to be one and done, because his defensive system, the press in particular, is based on much more intricate teamwork than Calipari's relatively straightforward man-to-man defense, and it takes more than a season for many players to get good at.

The good news is, we aren't facing Rick Pitino tomorrow, we are facing Sean Woods, who runs Petino's traditional presses, not his advanced match-up press. Trouble is, the zone presses are still effective, particularly against young teams. Kentucky must be patient, keep the ball away from the sidelines, and remember to avoid the speed dribble deep in the backcourt or near the midcourt sidelines, which will likely draw immediate traps, another staple of Pitino's system at UK. Patience and forcing defenders to commit before picking up your dribble is important.

Another thing working in Kentucky's favor is that all our big men have good hands, and the size of UK will make it difficult for the smaller defenders to attack the Wildcats in the press without fouling.What UK has to guard against is the tendency of youth to try to throw the long pass. That is fool's gold against a press, and can often result in a deflection or turnover out of bounds. The most important aspect to breaking any press is patience, keeping your spacing, and not placing your defender in a position where he can guard you and the ballhandler, which happens when players come back to try to help a bothered teammate. Help him by keeping spacing correct and being patient.

Make no mistake, full court presses are going to cause turnovers. They are also going to provide easy transition baskets. The key to handling a pressing team is to make them pay for the press more often than the press pays off for them.

A secondary objective of the press is to force the opponent to expend more energy than they are prepared for. Patience against it will largely negate that, but few teams are able to resist the full-court opportunities at layups and dunks that presses present. Kentucky must remember that, while run-outs and dunks are fun, they take a toll that can wind up being exacted by steals and easy baskets at the other end. Sometimes getting the ball into the front court and executing your offense is the better part of valor.