Although it was the offense that let Kentucky basketball down in the national title game, the Wildcats D was a bigger weakness last season. Another year of ranking 41st in the country in defense (per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings) won’t do Big Blue’s national title hopes any good, but there is hope for shoring up the team’s performance on that end of the floor.
It should go without saying that the returning ‘Cats need to work on their individual defensive games to make headway here. Beyond that, here are three keys to a better defensive season for John Calipari’s charges:
Trust their size
One of Kentucky’s recurring advantages under Coach Cal has been astounding length at every position. That theme isn’t about to change next year with the 6’6” Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, returning in the backcourt and a trio of 7-footers competing for time at center.
To get the most out of that edge, though, the Wildcats guards need to avoid getting beaten off the dribble so often. If they focus more on forcing the opposition to take jump shots, the long reach of the Harrisons (and 6’5” freshman Devin Booker) will go a long way toward creating misses.
Use the bench
The aforementioned glut of centers includes freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, a second world-class shot-blocker along with veteran Willie Cauley-Stein. Not only can they sub for each other, but Cauley-Stein is athletic enough to slide over to power forward on occasion. This allows a truly fearsome twin-towers defense.
Another promising recruit is new point guard Tyler Ulis, who makes up in quickness what he lacks in size at 5’9”. If Andrew Harrison continues to get shredded by opposing point guards (as he did too often in 2013-14), Ulis can come in to provide a valuable change of pace by turning up the pressure and forcing some turnovers.
Add some zone
Even with Ulis’ arrival, Kentucky’s backcourt is vastly inferior to its front line when it comes to playing D. That imbalance, already in place in 2013-14, becomes even more pronounced because new power forward Trey Lyles is a weapon as a shot-blocker, far ahead of where Julius Randle was when he arrived in Lexington last year.
One of the best ways to hide deficiencies on the perimeter while simultaneously magnifying the effects of UK’s many rim protectors is to mix in some zone defenses. A 2-3 set with either Cauley-Stein or Towns in the middle would make it easier for the guards to funnel drivers toward a waiting stopper. The usual difficulties in rebounding from the zone would be mitigated by the Wildcats’ enormous size advantage.
Playing a zone would also make it easier to use multiple centers side-by-side without one of them being caught in a bad matchup with a quicker opponent. Considering the playing-time crunch in the pivot—6’9” Marcus Lee, another fine defender, is also scrambling for minutes there—even Calipari has good reason to relent his usual devotion to man-to-man next season.