Cats believe they control their defensive issues, can fix them

If John Calipari’s memory serves him right, this year’s team is in uncharted waters defensively and for all of the wrong reasons after both LSU and Missouri shot better than 50 percent last week.

The basics

What: No. 18/14 Kentucky (16-5, 6-2 SEC) vs. Ole Miss (15-6, 6-2 SEC)
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Ole Miss
SEC teleconference: Cal: Just take care of business
Video: Cal’s pre-Ole Miss presser

“I bet you if you look over the history of all the years, over 20 years of coaching, back-to-back 50-percent shooting nights against my teams, I can’t imagine that it’s happened,” Coach Cal said Monday on the Southeastern Conference teleconference.

Well, it certainly hasn’t happened while he’s been at Kentucky.

In fact, in more than four-and-a-half seasons at UK, Calipari’s teams have only allowed eight teams to shoot better than 50 percent. Three of those have come in the last seven games, including the back-to-back games last week.

Clearly, this isn’t the defensively dominant team of Coach Cal’s past.

“We’ve been concentrating on trying to get better defensively as a unit,” said assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who subbed for Calipari at his normal pregame media opportunity on Monday.  “I think with a young group, guys have to understand the commitment you have to make in order to do the things that we want to do. The good thing is that they are coming along and they are getting better. It’s a commitment that they have to continue to make. With a young group like this it takes a little bit of time, but I think it takes more time, particularly the way that we want to defend.”

TV/Radio coverage

Radio:  UK IMG
Online audio: All-access
Live stream: WatchESPN
Live stats: Gametracker
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A quick glance at UK’s basic statistical numbers wouldn’t suggest that this is a team facing an identity crisis on defense. The Cats are among the nation’s leaders in defensive field-goal percentage (.399) and blocked shots per game (6.7).

But those numbers only tell half the story.

UK is giving up more points per game (67.2) than any of Calipari’s previous Kentucky teams, and by a pretty wide margin in terms of averages. Kentucky ranks 52nd in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, only besting last year’s disappointing group, and the Cats’ turnover percent of 16.4 is near the bottom of the country.

Consider this: A good indication of a strong defensive performance is holding a team to less than a point per possession. Eleven times this year and four times in the last six games UK has allowed the opposition to score more than a point per possession, including Saturday’s 1.18 mark (official Missouri stats after the game said it was 1.254).

Ole Miss File

Record: 15-6, 6-2 in the SEC
Head coach: Andy Kennedy (167-93 at Ole Miss)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Rebels
Player to watch: Marshall Henderson (19.2 ppg, 77 3-pointers)
Series history: UK leads 100-13
Last meeting: UK won 87-74 on Jan. 29, 2013

Obviously Missouri’s offensive numbers were bolstered by two spectacular performances from guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson, but Kentucky’s porous transition defense allowed the Tigers to make a second-half comeback.

The Cats allowed 18 fast-break points, but those numbers fail to recognize the transition opportunities Missouri created after UK scored. In the second half alone, Missouri scored four times in the eight seconds after a Kentucky made field goal.

“It’s just a matter of sprinting back and just having a ‘want to’ to sprint back and be a defensive team,” freshman point guard Andrew Harrison said. “I feel like we’ll be much harder to beat if we become that defensive team.”

Antigua would agree. If No. 18/14 Kentucky (16-5, 6-2 SEC) can force teams to play offense in the half court, Antigua feels like the Cats could do quite well because of the length.

To get there, Antigua said UK need to do four things better in transition: 1.) Get back. 2.) Communicate. 3.) Stop the ball. 4.) Identity the threats in transition.

“That’s something that we can control,” Antigua said. “That’s identifying the problem and fixing it and not relaxing, not looking to celebrate, just recognizing that we’ve made a basket and we have to get back on defense. Unless we’re in a situation where we’re pressing, everybody should be sprinting back on defense and identifying who we have.”

Neither Antigua nor Harrison was alarmed by the defensive struggles this late in the season, especially after experiencing similar problems against Michigan State at the beginning of the year.

Antigua said the issues are the byproduct of youth. He pointed out that there are still 10 games left in the regular season to fix the leaky defense.

“It has nothing to do with our talent, our skill or anything like that,” Harrison said. “It’s just being aware and just wanting to do it, and I feel like we can do that.”

Kentucky’s defensive problems seem to be mushrooming at a critical point in the season. Fresh off facing the league’s top scorer in Brown, now the Cats must figure out how to contain the league’s third-leading scorer, Marshall Henderson.

The always-entertaining, sometimes-overly-flamboyant Ole Miss guard is averaging 19.2 points on the season, having made 77 3-pointers in 18 games. Henderson has really picked up his scoring since coming back from a two-game injury absence, scoring 19 or more points in all but one game since that mid-January leave. He’s made 24 treys during those six games.

“You just know he’s going to shoot,” Antigua said. “We are expecting that. He is a talented, talented player and it’s going to be a good challenge for our guys, not just for our guards, but for our entire team to make it difficult on him. He is going to get his shots up.”

Missouri had its way with Kentucky offensively on Saturday. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

With free reign to shoot, it isn’t a matter of when Henderson is going to shoot or how many times he’ll launch it, it’s from where. Kentucky held him to 5-of-19 shooting in the lone meeting last season, but the Cats were aided by Nerlens Noel’s record-setting 12 blocked shots.

“He shoots it out 30 feet so I don’t know if you can push him out any further than that,” Antigua said. “Our success last year was that we moved the ball and we scored the ball really well. Obviously Nerlens had a great impact on defending the rim. We just have to try and continue to make it difficult for him. He is going to get his shots up. We just have to have a hand in his face, make it as difficult as possible, control the rebounds, and see if we can get out and get some easy baskets in transition.” 

It remains to be seen whether or not Kentucky will try to employ the zone defense it used for brief spells at Missouri against Ole Miss (15-6, 6-2 SEC) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. When UK used the 2-3 look Saturday, it was one of the few instances Missouri seemed flustered.

“It worked really well,” Harrison said. “We’re a pretty big team, so I think it got them off guard because we usually don’t play too much zone. Us being so long and being able to deflect balls and stuff, I think that affected them a little bit.”

Though Calipari has teased zone throughout his career at Kentucky, he’s always been hesitant to use it. He’s a traditional man-to-man defensive coach who doesn’t like to steer away from what works well.

That begs the question: Was the use of zone a reflection of just how out of sync this team is defensively or did he actually see something worth using it for?

“Coach is great at this, adjusting to the strengths and weaknesses of our team,” Antigua said. “In the past we have worked on it, but he just never felt comfortable enough to put it out there. The guys are working really hard on that as well. We’ve had some success with it. We will try and see if it gives us success again, and then we will stick with it. But we do have length and we have size. The one thing that you can’t get enamored with when you’re in the zone is thinking you don’t have to work as hard as you would in man-to-man. You actually have to work just as hard.”

Harrison wasn’t surprised Calipari went to it.

“No, because I feel like he loves to win even more,” Harrison said. “Whatever he thinks will work he usually does, so we just try to do that.”

Whatever adjustments Kentucky chooses to make defensively, one thing is clear: The Cats must get better. Since Pomeroy started charting adjusted defensive efficiency in 2003, no national title winner has finished worse than 21st in the final rankings. Currently at No. 52, Kentucky has some serious strides to make.

Harrison said the first adjustment starts with an attitude.

“I feel like that’s just a will to win and being enthusiastic about defense,” Harrison said. “Like Coach (Kenny) Payne says, having a defensive spirit, that’s what you have to have to win. I think we’re getting there. I think we’re getting better every day.”