Today we conclude our look at the early work turned in by the 2016 edition of the Wildcats. Yesterday we looked at the offense through the lens of a few notable categories, today we do the same for the defensive side of the ball.
As I mentioned yesterday, the Cats have played a variety of good teams across several levels of college basketball and we've started to get a sense of their identity. We're going to take a look at how they are performing in some notable areas alongside previous Wildcat squads as a way to provide some context.
Writers note: All stats in this article were compiled prior to the EKU game.
This year is not shaping up to be a good one for sending basketballs into the 7th row. Wildcats are blocking shots at the lowest rate in the Calipari era and it's not particularly close. Even worse, the trend is for block rate to go down rather than up as the season progresses. How much of that trend is due to the 'Cats themselves and how much of it is due to opponent quality is a matter of debate, but it's not like it's ever a secret when UK has good shot blockers.
The reason for the downturn is pretty obvious - there's no elite shot blocker such as Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis, or Willie Cauley-Stein on the team. Skal Labissiere (9.3%) and Marcus Lee (8.2%) are both very good, but those guys would be 2nd or 3rd best on previous UK teams (2011 excepted). It's always possible one or both of those guys could surprise us, but as you can see from previous years, great shot blocking is usually in evidence by now.
I don't want to sound too harsh - Kentucky is still a Top 30 team in this area. But it's hard not to notice that Cal's 3 best teams also had far and away the best block rates at this point in the season.
Opponent 2pt FG%
Going hand in hand with block rate is opponents' two-point field goal percentage. Blocks tend to go down as the season progresses and no surprise - opponents start making a few more 2's at the same time. The 'Cats are allowing opponents to hit 44.1% of their shots inside the arc, higher than previous seasons by a hair.
There are a lot of reasons this can happen: too many players going for blocks, not stopping the ball in transition, and not blocking out on defensive rebounds to give up second chance points. I expect some of that will get fixed as the season goes on, but not having an elite shot blocker puts a fairly strong bound on just how good 2pt defense can get.
Opponent 3pt FG Attempt Rate
Shot blocking is a big part of Cal's teams, but another traditionally strong component is discouraging teams from even attempting 3s. Cal's teams have finished in the top 75 every year except 2010 (225th) in the fraction of opponents' shots that come from behind the arc, a streak that is more impressive when you consider how often those opponents are playing from behind and need to score points in a hurry.
This year's team looks like it will continue to the trend, as they are off to the best start since 2011. Preventing opponents from even attempting 3s is evidence of good defense from the "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take" angle, but I don't want to oversell it. Kentucky puts some good defensive guards on the floor, so some of this is definitely real, but teams might also be choosing to bypass 3s because UK's interior defense hasn't been as strong as usual.
Like a lot of defense, this really needs some eyeball scouting to figure out the cause and effect and it's not something I've paid particular attention to so far. I'll make a point to do so for future games, but in the meantime I'm curious what others think - is this good perimeter defense or are opponents just finding it much easier to get to the rim?
Opponent Assist Rate
This is more of a style category than one that points to good or bad defense. A low assist rate indicates that opposing players aren't setting up their teammates and instead have to get their own shot one-on-one. Whether that bodes good or ill depends more on the style of the opposing offense than anything else. But it does suggest that Kentucky's defense might be more effective against teams that lack playmakers and depend on running plays and setting up shots in order to score.
Whatever the cause, so far this year the 'Cats are allowing fewer baskets off passes than in any previous season under Cal. The trend is for this number to go down as the season progresses, but UK is holding teams to such a low rate already that it's hard to envision it getting any lower.
Honestly, I'm not sure what to think about Kentucky's defense right now. They were terrific in harassing a very good Duke offense and despite some notable lapses in recent games, they've been effective overall:
5 6 of their 8 9 opponents have been held to their worst or second-worst efficiency so far this season.
Blocks are traditionally a big part of Cal's defensive scheme and while this team is good, they aren't as great as previous teams have been. At the same time however, they've been great at running opponents off the 3 point line - another key part of Cal's defenses. On the other hand, that might not be good if opposing guards are just driving from the arc to the basket because they aren't as worried about getting their shot blocked.
There's a lot more that I didn't cover. Defensive rebounding has actually been good overall, even if there has been some really glaring cases of giving up second opportunities (*cough* Duke *cough*). UK is also doing an above average job at forcing turnovers and getting steals which is pretty rare for Cal teams. We'll just have to wait and see what they become. Right now the closest comp would seem to be 2011 which was a good defensive team despite lacking an elite shot blocker. They made up for it with good perimeter defense and rebounding and this Kentucky squad could end up following the same path.
Thanks for reading!