The Kentucky Wildcats are currently riding on an impressive nine-game winning streak, and the biggest key to victory night after night has been the team’s ability to absolutely terrorize opponents on the defensive end of the floor.
In seven of Kentucky’s last eight games, the opposition has scored no more than 63 points. And in each of those matchups, the Wildcats have allowed shooting percentages of just 35.8, 34.9, 37, 36.5, 31.1, 30.4, and 36.2. Outside of Auburn on January 19, not a single team has shot greater than 40 percent from the field since the Texas A&M game at Rupp Arena on January 8.
And how they’re defending is the most impressive aspect of it all.
It’s not just constant pressure on the perimeter or a single dominant low-post blocking presence a la Nerlens Noel. It’s a perfect mixture of intensity and focus on all three levels. If they’re not blocking shots, they’re altering them. If they’re not pulling in steals, they’re tipping balls and making opposing ball-handlers uncomfortable in their decision-making process. The way things came easily for opponents earlier in the year just doesn’t happen anymore, and the numbers prove that.
Kentucky is one of just seven schools in the nation with a top-20 adjusted offensive and defensive rate in the nation, joining Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Iowa State. Connecticut (2014) is the only team in the last ten years to win a national championship without falling in that specific category.
Kentucky guard Jemarl Baker said after the South Carolina win on Tuesday that the team understands they have to play defense if they want a chance at winning a championship.
“In order to win we are going to have to defend,” he said. “In order to win the championship we are going to have to defend and be great defensively as well. We have been working really hard in practice and execute the game plans as best we can.”
And it’s working.
Wildcat forward PJ Washington said the current hot streak the team is on would not be possible without the improvements they’ve made on defense.
“Defense is a big part of why we’re winning,” he said. “Without our defense, I don’t think we would be on a nine-game winning streak. We’re stopping teams and forcing them to get out of their game plans and it’s just great to stop teams like that.”
As a result, the team says they’re now having fun.
“Yeah, we’re definitely having fun now. Almost as fun as offense,” Washington said with a smile.
For freshman point guard Ashton Hagans, the biggest defensive pest on the team, said he loves the way his intensity on defense translates to easy offense on the other end of the floor.
“It’s fun to me because once you get the steal, you’re going to have a lob, a fast break layup or something like that,” he said. “I just love playing defense, getting into somebody’s body and just being aggressive.”
For Richards, there’s nothing like the pure joy that comes with swatting someone’s shot away.
“I just like blocking people’s shots, man. That’s just the fun part about defense for me,” he said.
It hasn’t always been fun and games on the defensive end of the floor, though. At the start of the year, opposing guards drove at will on the Kentucky backcourt, leading to easy scores on the Wildcat front court. Just a few months ago, Kentucky head coach John Calipari even went as far as to say this was one of his worst defensive teams since he first arrived in Lexington.
Assistant coach Tony Barbee backed up those claims.
“It was 100 percent true,” he said. “We were bad through the first seven, eight, nine games of the year. It was just the young guys getting a feel for it at this level and us collectively trusting each other defensively. And that just comes with young teams like we have every year and you see the breakthrough usually happens late December, early January when we have that Christmas break when we do a lot of practicing, a lot of film work, and then you see the guys grow and improve rapidly during that period. And that’s what’s happened again this year.”
Now, Barbee believes things are going well because it has been a collective effort to improve as a unit.
“The guys are taking the personal challenge on to not be the guy to break us down,” he said. “When it becomes that important to you individually to protect each other collectively, then you become pretty good, especially with the pieces we have. The length, the size, the physicality, the quickness on the perimeter. And then when you’ve got two pit bulls on the perimeter, it makes it really tough on the other team.”
Washington said the team is now using their dominant efforts on defense to take the opposition out of their game and force adjustments on the fly. It’s exactly what happened on Tuesday night against South Carolina in a 28-point smothering at home.
“Our key is just taking them out of their game plan, making their strengths their weaknesses,” he said. “When we play any team that’s the biggest thing we try to do. Tonight, they were a denying team on the defensive end so we tried to do the same thing to them.”
For Hagans, it’s not just his impact on the perimeter that has sparked the overall defensive success throughout conference play. It has been a complete team effort, and they’re only going to get better.
“I bring an intensity on defense, but I wouldn’t say it’s just me,” he said. “I think everybody is trying to get better on the defensive end. Tyler (Herro) made a big stride on the defensive end. As it goes along, Keldon (Johnson) is getting way better on the defensive end. We’re all there for each other, knowing that we’re going to go out there and fight for each other. As the season goes along, the defense is going to get better.”
With Richards, he simply got tired of losing. The entire team did. Once they refocused their efforts on defense, a brand new Kentucky basketball team came out to play.
“We just noticed that we hated losing, everyone on this team just loves winning,” he said. “We just had to figure out that defense is one of the most important things that we had to do.”
Following a convincing nine-game winning streak and some of the best defensive statistics in all of college basketball, it’s safe to say they’ve done just that.