Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats' Woes Against Zones Go Deeper Than Poor Shooting

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 7, 2014

Kentucky's James Young (1) hits his shot as South Carolina's Duane Notice tries to defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday March 1, 2014 in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
Mary Ann Chastain/Associated Press

Dreadful offensive performances in the last couple of games have made it clear that Kentucky basketball still has no answer for a zone defense.

Although a zone is a time-tested approach to attacking a team short on three-point shooters, the Wildcats have shown that they’re vulnerable for more reasons than just a woeful .314 percentage from beyond the arc.

In the first place, zones don’t just attack a Kentucky weakness—they also nullify Big Blue’s greatest strength, its phenomenal athleticism. These ‘Cats are at their best when they can outrun or outmuscle opponents in one-on-one matchups, but even they don’t have enough of an edge to pull off the same feats against the constant double- and triple-teams of a zone.

Andrew Harrison isn't the only one frustrated with Kentucky's offense lately.
Andrew Harrison isn't the only one frustrated with Kentucky's offense lately.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Secondly, beating a zone is a mental exercise as much as a physical one, and Kentucky has not shown much improvement when it comes to solving that particular puzzle.

Even against Alabama, after seeing zones repeatedly over 29 games and uncountable practices, the Wildcats were still making the wrong passes and failing to cut to the right openings.

Just as Kentucky has struggled to defend the pick-and-roll, set plays on its own offensive end have not been a strength, either. When it’s tough to get even two of the ‘Cats on the same page to run a play reliably, it’s hardly likely that the team will manage the kind of precision five-man offense that forces an opponent to stop playing zone.

The heart of the problem, though, is likely the same issue that’s limited Kentucky to a paltry 11.5 assists per game as a team (267th nationally): the Wildcats still haven’t learned to trust each other.

Unlike previous editions of the John Calipari Traveling All-Stars, this year’s players still appear to believe that they need to take mediocre shots because their teammates won’t get anything better (or hit it if they do).

It’s not just about worrying that the next guy will miss his shot, either: The dearth of adept passers means that a turnover could always be just one player away.

With the ‘Cats having so much success on the offensive glass this season, it’s easy to see how they might have fallen into a launch-and-pray mindset rather than trying to pick apart the D.

It’s anybody’s guess how many of these problems can be chalked up to the egos of a team built entirely out of McDonald’s All-Americans. What is obvious, though, is that the Wildcats’ stars are trying to make individual plays that they can’t make—and that they’ve proven they can’t make—over and over again.

Julius Randle, who made some great passes against Baylor, has just two assists in his last five games.
Julius Randle, who made some great passes against Baylor, has just two assists in his last five games.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

To be fair, there have been occasional flashes of hope for Calipari and his coaching staff. In the loss to zone-happy Baylor way back on December 6, Kentucky had one of its best passing games of the season, with the Harrison twins combining for 12 assists and Julius Randle adding four more.

That loss was a failure of Kentucky's defense, not its handling of the Bears' 2-3 look.

However, until the ‘Cats can learn to execute at that level every time they see a zone, they’re going to see plenty more. And, before they get too far in the postseason, they’re going to lose to one.