Through their first eight games, the Kentucky Wildcats looked as though they could not stop anybody. They gave up record numbers of three-pointers, ranked near the bottom of Division I in defensive efficiency, and let a guy named Bubba score 35 points in Rupp Arena.
Big blue faithful turned their hopes to the offense, praying that the Wildcats could score enough points to compete while the defense worked its way toward “good enough.” However, what we have seen in the last couple of weeks has been quite remarkable. The driving force behind the identity of this group is the defensive intensity.
Of course, the tone has been set by Ashton Hagans. He had eight steals (tying the school record) and three blocks on Saturday against North Carolina, and was absolutely disruptive during his entire 31 minutes on the court.
In his postgame press conference, Keldon Johnson was very complimentary of his fellow freshman.
“His defensive presence is amazing,” Johnson said. “And you could see it just rubbing off on everybody.”
He is not wrong. As a team, the Wildcats had 11 steals and nine blocks while forcing 18 turnovers. North Carolina shot just 42% from the field, and the Tar Heels rarely looked comfortable trying to run their offense with the Wildcats playing aggressive on-ball defense and jumping in passing lanes.
Another spark for the defense was Nick Richards. While he only played ten minutes, he had a monster block and five defensive rebounds. Even when he was not blocking shots, he was altering them by his sheer presence in the paint.
The defensive intensity absolutely translated to the offensive end of the court as well. The Wildcats won an absolute track meet against one of the top transition teams in the country. They ran the floor and worked hard to find the open man, racking up 24 assists on 28 made field goals.
All of this made John Calipari a happy camper in the postgame press conference. But as far as his Wildcats have come, Calipari expects them to go even further soon enough.
“We’re not the same team we were two weeks ago. It’s not even close. And hopefully two weeks from now, we’re not going to be the same team we are today,” exclaimed Calipari. “And that’s the process of every day, let’s try to get better. You have games that are kind of tests that show you. We lost to Seton Hall but we got better between the week before Seton Hall and Seton Hall. He we just lose a buzzer beater.
“But that’s all I’m trying to do with this team. If they will become a defensive-rebounding-minded team, that’s where they are about, I think our offense is good enough, I really do.”
This team absolutely still has work to do. But if you build your foundation on the defensive end of the court, your house will be much more likely to stand the next time a storm comes through.