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Film Study: Defense was the issue for Kentucky in Kentucky vs UCLA Part I

Kentucky missed nine free throws and 16 of their 24 3-point attempts in December. But, that wasn’t why they lost to the Bruins.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Kentucky
Malik Monk tried to bring the ‘Cats back late on Dec. 3, but the Bruins were just too much.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky’s rematch with UCLA mirrors the 2011-12 championship season for Kentucky, as the ‘Cats take the floor in Memphis on Friday night against the Bruins.

Back when Anthony Davis was terrorizing offenses across the country, the ‘Cats suffered just one defeat before postseason play against Indiana in Dec. 2011. They would go on to draw the Hoosiers in the Sweet 16 later that season and defeat their long-time rivals on their way to the school’s eighth title.

That’s the hope for the Big Blue Nation with the 2016-17 ‘Cats, too.

In the Dec. 3 meeting between Kentucky and UCLA, Kentucky shot just 41.2 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from long range and 66.7 percent from the free throw line in their 97-92 defeat to the then-No. 11 Bruins.

Isaiah Briscoe and De’Aaron Fox combined to shoot 12-of-34 (1-of-9 from 3-point range), while Malik Monk — despite his lack of touches down the stretch — dropped in 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting and drained four of his eight attempts from deep. Bam Adebayo had his best game of the season up to that point with 18 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

So, what was the issue? Well, it was the 97 on the scoreboard inside Rupp Arena.

The ‘Cats missed some free throws, some shots from deep and Briscoe for some strange reason, couldn’t stop stepping out of bounds on that day, but that’s not why the ‘Cats lost the first meeting.

Step No. 5 in the title-winning plan I drew up for Kentucky before the NCAA Tournament: “Offense brings blue chip recruits, defense hangs banners.”

Kentucky’s defense back in December really looked like a team relying on their star-studded freshmen ... who weren’t quite ready for the spotlight and challenge.

When I went back and watched the first meeting, I watched nothing but every field goal UCLA made that day. With that being said, here’s a film-originated breakdown of what I noticed got the ‘Cats in trouble and what they need to fix heading into Friday night.

Kentucky really got caught out of position often in this game

It didn’t take long to see why the ‘Cats had so many problems against the Bruins. For one, they have Lonzo Ball and one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. Two, their defense was horrendous early in the year.

This was the first defensive possession for the ‘Cats. Here’s Wenyen Gabriel getting sliced on a back-cut by T.J. Leaf (off a Thomas Welsh backscreen rub), who caught a sharp Ball pass.

What’s the issue here? Well, it’s simple. Gabriel had no idea where the (basket)ball even was. It’s hard to play defense when you have no idea where the ball is.

Gabriel’s not even looking at the ball. Backdoor’s wide open for Leaf.

Later on in the first half, it was Malik Monk’s turn to be out of position on a UCLA possession. The thing that helps make the Bruins so good is that multiple guys can handle the basketball.

In this play, Leaf tries to take Gabriel off the dribble and into the lane. When Gabriel slows Leaf’s penetration (with Adebayo coming up, too), Leaf kicks to Bryce Alford, who cans a 3.

The issue here: Monk being out of position and got caught watching the ball with a deadly 3-point shooter drifts open for a great look. This was a common trend too from the tape. Kentucky got caught watching the ball (not just Lonzo) way too often.

A prime example: De’Aaron Fox when guarding Alford on the other side of the floor later in the half.

Fox is watching Ball’s drive with the ball, but he’s given Alford plenty of space to receive the pass and to get the shot off. You can’t give a 43.3 percent 3-point shooter on the season that much space.

The issue that Kentucky has had even before Lonzo Ball arrived: Thomas Welsh

When you have guys like Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, T.J. Leaf, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton, it’s easy to forget about Thomas Welsh.

Like his entire team, Welsh was a non-factor in the complete evisceration of UCLA during the 2014-15 season when Kentucky held the Bruins to seven points ... in the first half.

In the two meetings since (both UCLA wins), Welsh averaged 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds against the ‘Cats. He’s been one of the most frustrating parts for Kentucky fans in these last two losses to the Bruins.

The question always is, “How is he always open?”

Well, let’s look at that, too.

The ‘Cats tried to rally late in this game, but a big shot from Ball (more on him in a bit) and two Thomas Welsh jumpers really iced this one away for the Bruins.

On back-to-back possessions under the under-4 media timeout, UCLA ran a set where T.J. Leaf pulled his man (Derek Willis) away from the rim and operated up top. Bryce Alford ran across the lane and basically ran a rub screen on Bam Adebayo that forced him to run into Dominique Hawkins, allowing Welsh to pop out and drain an easy baseline jumper to extend the lead back to 10.

The next time down, Leaf once again got the ball at the top of the key, but this set had a different action on the other side of the floor. Welsh came to set a screen to allow Alford to run down the baseline.

Leaf quickly recognized that Kentucky — like they were doing all game long mostly — switched off the screen, giving Welsh a clear look at the rim with the 6’3” Malik Monk now on him instead of the near-7-foot Bam Adebayo. Nothing but net.

Vital point No. 1 still: Lonzo Ball

Kentucky learned the hard way that Lonzo Ball, when he wants to, can score the basketball just about wherever he wants against whoever.

Not once.

But, twice.

The first jumper’s not on Adebayo. That’s just a great player doing great things to beat the clock at the end of the half.

The second 3-pointer is what happens when Ball has any kind of room. De’Aaron Fox goes up a subtle screen from Thomas Welsh and gets burned because of it.

Ball did have six turnovers in the first meeting, so he will make mistakes.

But, Kentucky cannot afford an endless amount of defensive lapses if they’re going to move on to the Elite Eight.

If the Kentucky defense isn’t up to par with how they closed out the Wichita State victory, their stay in Memphis will be shorter than they want it to be.