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Kentucky Basketball: The Root Of Kentucky's Transition Defense Problem

The biggest reason Kentucky struggles in transition defense is lack of court awareness.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that Kentucky has really struggled to do over the last two years is defend well in transition. There have been many theories as to why this might be, but clearly it’s got a lot to do with the Harrison twins and where they are on the floor.

I examined several transition plays in the Louisville Cardinals game, and let’s take a look at one that epitomizes where some of our problems lie. This sequence is a 3-point shot by Aaron Harrison from the right wing, and a subsequent long rebound where Louisville gets an advantage in transition. We start with Aaron taking the shot:

UL transition 1

Now, as the ball goes toward the rim, the Louisville player drops down to collect the rebound. After the shot caroms off, notice that Louisville’s wing, Shaqquan Aaron, is ready to go in transition, while Aaron Harrison is still watching the action underneath. At this point, nobody has accounted for the Louisville player.

UL transition 2

Transition happens, and Kentucky’s guards are out of position. Aaron’s responsibility is the left wing defense, and Andrew’s the right. Andrew is well-positioned, but because Aaron allowed the Louisville player to leak out while he ball-watched, he’s trailing the play. We see in this image the ball in flight headed toward the Louisville player on the left wing.

UL transition 3

In the final image, we see Louisville’s Aaron with an easy layup. He fumbles the play and the twins jointly defend it, but nobody is near Chris Jones on the right wing (secondary break), where Andrew should be — he’s helping his beaten brother near the basket. Jones gets a clean 3-point transition look in rhythm. Jones laid one of Louisville’s many bricks on that shot, so it didn’t hurt the team on that play, but what you see here is typical of Kentucky’s difficulty.

UL Transition 4

Some have thought that transition problems were caused by the twins’ lack of athleticism, but what it really boils down to is that they are still young and making young players’ mistakes. They watch the ball too much, and lose sight of their men. It’s natural to follow the ball after a jumper, but good defensive players are already thinking about possible transition. You don’t want to lose sight of the ball, but you also have to have an awareness of where everyone is on the floor.

The twins haven’t developed this awareness fully yet. They are still too invested in the outcome of the play, be it a drive by Andrew or a shot by Aaron. They have to get better at decision-making and being aware of where people are. You’ll notice that both of them were back behind the free throw line, which is good, but if you don’t see that guy leaking out on the break and account for him, good initial positioning is for naught — Aaron could’ve just as well crashed the boards.

Andrew did a good job preventing the primary break by helping his brother. If that had been a more experienced player instead of Shaqquan Aaron in his first big game, it would’ve resulted in a dunk, layup or and-1. Because Louisville’s Aaron paused to gather himself, Andrew was able to complete the double-team, but at the cost of an open three. Andrew made the best of a bad situation here, and he did the right thing. You’d always rather give up three than a layup — that’s basketball 101.

Overall, I thought Kentucky played reasonably well in transition defense on Saturday, but some of it was due to Louisville's lack of success shooting the ball.  We tend to assume defense is okay when the result of the play isn't an easy basket, but sometimes that's deceptive.

Court awareness is a developed skill. The Harrisons need to work on it.