UK’s inability to guard the three-point line has been a major concern so far this season. Entering last night’s game, Kentucky’s opponents were hitting 44.1 percent of their three-point attempts, and the Cats came in at No. 345 in the country in three-point defense.
Tennessee State, on the other hand, entered last night’s matchup with a season of thriving from behind-the-arc. The tigers ranked fifth nationally, averaging 12.2 successful three-point baskets through their first five games. Over 48 percent of their offense was coming from the three-point land, and over the course of the season, TSU was attempting an average of 32.2 three-point shots per game.
“This season we play fast and we want to take over the threes, especially when in transition,” TSU head coach Penny Collins said. “If we can get a good quick one up, we are going to take it every time.”
But something changed last night against Kentucky – Tennessee State only attempted 16 treys, sinking just six of them for 37.5 percent. So what was it? Did Kentucky’s perimeter defense finally show signs of improvement? Or did Tennessee State just change their game plan for a matchup against a tougher opponent? With the risk of offering up a cop-out response, the answer is probably both.
John Calipari addressed the discrepancy between TSU’s three-point attempts last night versus the rest of their young season, arguing that Kentucky’s lack of defense in general allowed the Tigers to drive the ball inside more than they usually are able to.
“They probably watched the tapes and said you know what, we don’t have to take threes,” Calipari said. “Let’s just drive the ball, which I thought they would do. My thing was they would spread the court, use clock and then try to beat somebody on the bounce. I thought they had a pretty good game plan in what they were doing. And then they were physical.”
TSU’s Coach Collins admitted to deviating from his team’s traditional game plan.
“Tonight, with Kentucky being so elite in transition and so great at rebounding, we really wanted to apply the pressure on them by getting multiple hand touches. We want to pass up good shots for great shots and we did that,” Collins said. “I felt like this was the lowest amount of threes we have taken in a game this year, but at the same time, it did provide us with the opportunity to stay competitive the entire game instead of coming down taking quick shots.”
But while the Tigers may have adjusted their usual method of attack, Kentucky’s improving perimeter defense also played a role. After getting crushed by the three against Winthrop, the Cats knew they had to strengthen their defense around-the-arc.
“It was something we were expecting, for them to throw up a lot of threes,” Reid Travis said after the game. “But at the end of the day, that was something that was a point of emphasis for us all week in practice: taking away the three and focusing the two-drive.”
But just because the team’s perimeter defense took one baby step forward doesn’t mean the Cats’ defense is where it needs to be. In fact, it’s still far from that.
“We have to anticipate more, see what’s happening before it happens, not after it happens, which is where we are right now,” Coach Cal said. “And then we’ve got to start helping the helper more so we can trust each other and so we can be more confident on defense.”
That confidence is going to take time and, more importantly, the Cats can’t lose sight of the perimeter defense once they begin to focus more on defending points in the paint.
“I think the next step in our progression of defense is, ok, if we’re going to take away the three, you can close out, move our feet, stay in front of them and contest shots at the rim,” Travis said. “We made improvements… but we can’t take a step back in other parts of our defense.”