Though he only spent one season as a Kentucky Wildcat, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a beloved figure in Wildcat Basketball lore. From his personality to his family background, fans all around the Commonwealth love this kid. His impact wasn’t just felt off the court either. His play on the court, particularly his defense from the wing position, was paramount in Kentucky’s run to an eighth national title. Of course, tenacious defense from the wing position isn’t new for John Calipari, hyper-athletic wings have been highly important to his defensive success over the years. Perhaps nothing personifies this theory more than the 2012-13 season where Kentucky struggled mightily on the defensive end of the floor.
John Calipari, dating back to his Memphis days, has always been an elite defensive coach. Cal’s teams always block shots from the interior, slow opponents from the perimeter, and rarely commit fouls. While his teams are known on defense for a variety of reasons, it’s the versatility from the wing position that’s the true calling point of Calipari’s defense. Use Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as an example. Last year, he rebounded, stole, blocked shots, and generally infuriated opponents to the point where they couldn’t score. Sure, Anthony Davis was important, but Kidd-Gilchrist’s tenacity helped shut down a variety of different offensive players. This has been a massive part of Cal’s defense in his time as Kentucky head man, just reminisce about the defensive prowess of DeAndre Liggins or John Wall in the guard/wing position. Of course, this season we lacked a man who had these capabilities, and the numbers show it.
The numbers for this season represent Kentucky before Nerlens’ knee injury.
As you can see, this season wasn’t typical of a Calipari coached defense. Why? Well, for starters, it certainly wasn’t the play of our big men. Up until Nerlens’ knee injury, he was neck-and-neck with Anthony Davis’ record block pace and was the team leader in steals by a significant margin. Willie Cauley-Stein, while certainly not Nerlens’ equal, was a very capable defender, blocking 60 shots and stealing 24 balls on the season. This duo was excellent at patrolling the lane, but their counterparts who were guarding the perimeter just couldn’t get the job done. This low level of guard play during the 2013 campaign wasn’t something to write home about as it frequently seemed as though we were outmatched in the backcourt. When comparing the size of Kentucky’s guards and wings over the past number of seasons, you’ll see why players like Elston Turner were able to overpower our defense.
For kicks, I’ve added the height of the members of this year’s recruiting class.
As you can see, this year’s squad just didn’t have the size from the guard/wing position that previous teams possessed. Whereas last year’s team had two 6-foot-7 wings in Darius Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who could step out and stop anyone, this year’s tallest perimeter defender was 6-foot-4 Archie Goodwin. With the exception of this season, everyone of Cal’s teams have contained a player (or multiple players) like this. 2011’s Final Four team had Liggins and Miller. 2010’s Elite Eight squad had Wall, Miller, and Dodson. Even his late Memphis teams had multiple players like Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose who could guard just about anyone.
So now that we know the impact these wings have on Calipari’s defense, let’s look forward to next season. As it currently stands, Kentucky has seven commitments, three of which play the guard/wing position. The combination of the Harrison twins and James Young gives this class the record for height in the guard/wing position. Not too mention, there’s some pretty decent size protecting the rim as well. While the 2012-13 campaign wasn’t exactly up to Calipari standards, next year there shouldn’t be an issue defending opposing guards because of the variety of wing defenders in which to choose from.