John Calipari is known for many things around the nation. To some, he’s known as the the best recruiter the game has ever seen, to others, he’s known as the coach who guided Kentucky to their eighth national title. From one-and-done recruiting tactics to his love of Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt, John Calipari is known for dozens of things. In recent years, however, Calipari and his teams have been known for something completely different, suffocating defense. Last year we were graced with Anthony Davis’ shot blocking along side Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s intensity. This year we were temporarily given Nerlens Noel’s all around defensive brilliance before he was lost to injury. Something Noel brought to the forefront of discussion was the subject of defense steals, a facet of the game largely unused during Calipari’s Kentucky tenure. However, while the numbers indicate that steals aren’t an integral part of Coach Cal’s defensive scheme, this portion of the game was a major part of the national title run and will be important moving forward.
Nerlens Noel was the authority on steals during Coach Cal’s tenure with his insanely quick hands while being backed down by an offensive player. Noel is about as pure of a post-defender as there can be regarding steals. Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones certainly didn’t possess the same ability to poke the ball out while being the primary defender, but they weren’t slouches in taking the ball away down low either. The duo combined for 103 steals on the season, which was highly important in Calipari’s interior defensive strategy. To prove the point, here are some clips of Jones and Davis getting steals in nontraditional ways. These specific plays are just a sample of what Calipari’s post men accomplish down low.
Before the first frame, Peyton Siva drove the lane and missed a lay-up attempt, allowing for a defensive rebound opportunity. The ball, represented by the orange dot, is up for grabs in the first frame and Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng is best positioned to grab the board. In frame two, Dieng obtains the rebound which was uncontested by Terrence Jones. While Jones didn’t contest the rebound, this was for good reason as he put himself in position for the steal in frame three. In the final frame, Dieng goes up for a put-back dunk, only to have the ball tapped out of his hands by Jones. It was this presence in the post that went largely unnoticed last season because of low steal totals. However, takeaways like these prevented opponents from getting easy put-back opportunities all season long.
Here we have Anthony Davis defending what was a pick and roll between Tyshawn Taylor and Jeff Withey. After the initial screen, both Withey and Taylor are driving to the bucket with Davis in the middle. As the play progresses in frame two, Taylor tosses the ball to Withey in a way where Davis is able to recognize the lob. Since Davis recognized Taylor’s move as a pass and not a shot attempt, he was able to sit back and snatch the ball out of the air, taking away an easy bucket from Kansas. Some recognize this move as more of a block than a steal, and that’s understandable. But, if nothing else, this clip shows that there’s more than one way to steal the ball in the post under Calipari’s guidance.
As we learned this season, the loss of interior steals (and blocks) can be devastating to a defense because so many easily preventable buckets are allowed. How does this affect us going forward? Well, if you’re unaware, John Calipari has reeled off another stellar recruiting class filled with multiple players who are capable of guarding the wing and post areas. Nearly every single recruit is touted by scouting services as being hyper-athletic and highly competitive. Given that Coach Cal is one of the best defensive minds in the business (7 top-15 defenses in eight years according to KenPom.com), we can reasonably expect the incoming big men to produce a decent amount of steals down low next season. It’s difficult to put a precise value on the type of numbers that will be produced given the general unreliability of high school stats, but if recruiting ratings and Calipari’s defensive pedigree are any indication, Kentucky should be able to replicate the plays above next season.