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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Defensive Thoughts from the First Weekend

I won't have a DSS for the Cats' first two games (or the rest of the tournament most likely: no replays available) but I do have a few numbers and some thoughts on the defense played by Kentucky in their first two wins.

Against Western KY, the Cats played their typical defense: allow the ball to go into the post, double team occasionally, and stay in contact with shooters on the perimeter enough to dissuade 3pt shots from being attempted. The Cats were clearly superior than the Hilltoppers and WKU scored a mere 42 points in the first 59 possessions for a microscopic 0.712 points per possession.

Kentucky held a 74-42 lead at that point and the game was effectively over. Western made a run over the remaining 7:45, scoring 24 points in the last 11 possessions (2.182 ppp) including scoring on 10 straight. Cal clearly wasn't pleased with how the game ended, but it doesn't really mean anything except to make the final score look pretty respectable for a 1-16 game that doesn't involve Syracuse. Western scored on 5 straight possessions early in the game when they took their only lead, but otherwise their scoring was very intermittent.

Here's a sparkline to show the flow of scoring in the game for Western KY. The up bars represent scoring possessions, the down bars are possessions when they did not score.


Against Iowa St we saw a reprise of the defensive strategy that helped win the Ohio State game last year. Terrence Jones was left to deal with Royce White 1 on 1 with everyone else staying home on their man. One area where this was clearly evident was in the low block total from Anthony Davis. Davis gets a lot of blocks by giving help but against Iowa St he was frequently moved away from the basket due to sticking with his man. This eliminated a lot of opportunities for him to give help defense which in turn took away a lot of block opportunities.

Jones had a bit of an odd defensive game. I would bet that he would end up with a poor defensive rating for the game and on the surface it's hard to imagine how allowing Royce White to score 23 points on 9 of 12 shooting from the field and putting up a 128.3 offensive rating for the game could be described as "good" defense, but I think that's what Jones did nevertheless. It was clear that Jones was the best option for defending White and despite fouling out, Terrence managed to stay out of the foul trouble for the majority of the game when it mattered thus preventing Calipari from being forced to use a sub-optimal defender on White.

Royce White dominates Iowa State's possessions allowing his teammates to be selective on their shots and thus more efficient in their scoring while White himself has a low Offensive Rating due mostly to having to shoulder the load on offense. The result is an offense that overall is very good at scoring (23rd best in the country per KenPom). In much the same way, Jones bore the load on defense allowing his teammates to be more effective in defending their assignments. Terrence would have had a poor individual defensive rating, but the sum total was an effective team defensive effort which is what ultimately matters.


Iowa St has a better offense than Western KY does and they were more successful scoring throughout the game and avoiding the kinds of lulls that doomed the Hilltoppers. The Cyclones were held to around 1.000 points per possession for most of the game until a final run put them at 1.092 ppp (a 109.2 efficiency). That's actually one of the better marks against the UK defense this year.

We'll have to wait and see how the Cats decide to defend Indiana, but I would not be at all surprised to see them use a variation of what they used against Iowa St. Anthony Davis is capable of handling Cody Zeller by himself which would leave everyone else free to stay out on Hulls, Watford, et al.