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For Kentucky basketball fans, a familiar worry comes back again

If you listened to John Calipari’s weekly radio show Monday night, you heard the Kentucky men’s basketball coach in animated form describing the “turn your legs to jelly” drills the UK players had been subjected to in practice that day as part of a plan to create more defensive toughness.

“We did some ‘wall sits’ today,” Calipari told the radio audience. “Have you ever done ‘wall sits’? Have you done them until your legs shake?”

Just getting warmed up, Calipari went on. “How about ‘lane slides’? And competing against a teammate — (the winner) gets to stop. The other has to go another time.”

Anyone who watched Kentucky’s unexpected 80-73 home loss to UNC Wilmington last Saturday before a stunned Rupp Arena crowd of 19,990 certainly understands why the UK head man felt compelled to implement a practice regimen designed to improve the ability to stay in a defensive stance (the “wall sits”) and to move with greater defensive balance (the “lane slides”).

Kentucky coach John Calipari reacted during UK’s unexpected 80-73 loss to UNC Wilmington last Saturday at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats will seek to get back on track against Pennsylvania on Saturday in Philadelphia. Mark Mahan
Kentucky coach John Calipari reacted during UK’s unexpected 80-73 loss to UNC Wilmington last Saturday at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats will seek to get back on track against Pennsylvania on Saturday in Philadelphia. Mark Mahan

For all the attention that the Wildcats’ disjointed offensive performance vs. UNC Wilmington got, it was UK’s inability to stay in front of straight-line drivers and its failure to get defensive stops under game-deciding pressure that should most worry Kentucky backers.

Last month, similar defensive issues plagued the Cats late in an 89-84 come-from-ahead loss to then-No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic and throughout what became UK’s 96-88 overtime escape vs. Saint Joseph’s.

Immediately after the UNC Wilmington loss, Calipari told the media, “Well, the first thing is, this was Saint Joe’s again where we couldn’t stay in front of the ball. And you can scheme and do all the stuff and (then) they go and do an ‘and-one’ layup on a straight-line drive, it’s hard.

“So we’ve got time in between games, and we’ve got to keep working on the importance of staying in front of your man and make him score through your chest. We just keep opening up the hips, and they’re shooting layups.”

For all the attention that had been placed in recent seasons on Calipari’s allegedly musty approach to offense, the advanced metrics have consistently maintained that UK’s primary problem has been its defense.

Consider: Calipari’s four Final Four teams at Kentucky ranked No. 16 (2010-11), No. 7 (the 2011-12 NCAA title team), No. 32 (the 2013-14 NCAA finalists) and No. 1 (the 38-1 team in 2014-15) in the adjusted defensive efficiency ranking contained within the Pomeroy Ratings.

Conversely, over the past five seasons, from 2019-20 through the first eight games of 2023-24, UK has ranked No. 52 (2019-20), No. 35 (2020-21), No. 36 (2021-22), No. 68 (2022-23) and No. 61 (this season through games of Wednesday night) in adjusted defensive efficiency.

(Over those five seasons, Kentucky has ranked substantially higher (meaning better) in adjusted offensive efficiency than in defensive efficiency in every year but the 9-16 slog of 2020-21, when the Cats were 84th in offensive efficiency but 35th defensively).

Even this year, when UK has mostly exhibited the more “modern” approach to offense — an unclogged lane, more use of the three-point line, fewer mid-range jump shots — that some Cats backers have been yearning for, the UNC Wilmington experience showed there are still going to be games where the offense misfires and you have to have a Plan B to secure victory.

Said Calipari: “There are games you’re not going to make shots. You’ve got to rebound and defend” to win those contests.

The biggest defensive change for UK from the stretch when the Wildcats were going to four Final Fours in five years from 2011 through 2015 to now is field-goal percentage defense.

Of Calipari’s Final Four teams, three of the four held foes below 40 percent on field-goal tries. Over the past six seasons, including this year to date (41.4 percent allowed), UK opponents have shot above 40 percent in five different years.

A big part of that change would seem to be rim protection — or its lack. Calipari’s first seven Kentucky teams all blocked more than 200 shots. None of his seven-most recent teams has blocked more than 176 shots.

The good news for the current Cats is that UK will likely be adding the capacity for rim protection to its player mix. Aaron Bradshaw, the touted 7-foot-1 freshman, made his season debut vs. UNC Wilmington after recovering from a foot injury. Ugonna Onyenso, the 7-foot sophomore, is expected back relatively soon from a foot injury of his own.

Kentucky sophomore big man Ugonna Onyenso (33) blocked 16 shots in limited action last season as a freshman. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
Kentucky sophomore big man Ugonna Onyenso (33) blocked 16 shots in limited action last season as a freshman. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
After returning from a foot injury, Kentucky 7-foot-1, freshman Aaron Bradshaw (2) played for the first time last Saturday in UK’s 80-73 upset loss to UNC Wilmington. Mark Mahan
After returning from a foot injury, Kentucky 7-foot-1, freshman Aaron Bradshaw (2) played for the first time last Saturday in UK’s 80-73 upset loss to UNC Wilmington. Mark Mahan

While integrating the big men into UK’s newly wide-open offensive style may prove a challenge, their presence near the basket defensively should at least make it more difficult for straight-line drivers to score at the Kentucky goal.

As for the perimeter defense, “if you don’t stay in the (defensive) stance with your hands up, we’re not getting better,” Calipari said Monday night on his radio show. “My option is, you are not going to play or we can figure this out.”

It may not be the sexiest concern, but whether Kentucky can get “figured out” what has created a multi-years trend of so-so defensive metrics should be number one on the Big Blue Nation’s “worry list.”

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