Kentucky’s Defense Is the Difference

No. 1 Wildcats are on track to become one of the best defensive teams in college basketball history.
by January 08, 2015

Don’t let the nail-biter against Ole Miss fool you.

No. 1 Kentucky is far from unbeatable, and a 88-85 overtime win at home on Tuesday night simply proved what any astute observer already knows: Nothing is a cakewalk at the sport’s highest levels. It’s this very fact, though, which confirms these Wildcats are still on track to become one of the best defensive teams in major college basketball history.

After Kentucky limited No. 5 Louisville to 50 points and all of one assist nearly two weeks ago, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino called Kentucky “one of the greatest defensive teams I’ve seen in my 40 years because they can switch and not cause a mismatch, they move their feet, they block shots.” Pitino should know. He orchestrated Kentucky 1995-96 and Louisville 2012-13, two of the modern game’s most impressive defensive teams. Louisville ‘13 allowed its foes to shoot only 39.5 percent and score 58.8 points a game; Kentucky ‘96 allowed a 41.5 percent field-goal clip and 69.4 points per game while playing at a faster pace.

Still, those numbers pale in comparison to Kentucky which through 14 games is keeping opponents to 31.1 percent shooting and 50.6 points per game. Such stats are great for any era of the last 60 years, on par with defensive maestros Bill Russell and KC Jones’ most dominant college team.

The Wildcats’ length and athleticism has impressed Craig Esherick, an assistant coach on the 1983-84 Georgetown team which won a National Championship behind Patrick Ewing. The star center was one of six Hoya players that season whom Esherick considered among the top-10 defenders at their position. The ‘84 Hoyas, which featured stoppers like 6-7 David Wingate and 6-5 Fred Brown in front of Ewing, were especially stifling against their best opponents. In its first game against a top-25 opponent, Georgetown limited DePaul to 26 field goals on 59 attempts. It didn’t get much better for Georgetown’s other top-25 opponents, as you can see in below:

1983-84 Georgetown Defense

georgetownOFGM – Opponents’ field goals made; OFGA – Opponents’ field goals attempted; R – Georgetown’s rebounds; OR – Opponents’ rebounds; OA – Opponents’ assists; TP – Georgetown’s points; OTP – Opponent’s points

Compare this to the four games Kentucky has so far played against top-25 opponents:

2014-15 Kentucky Defense


While Georgetown was slightly tougher in limiting elite opponents’ accuracy, 43 percent to 44.3 percent, the difference in points and assists allowed per game is astounding. When the lights are brightest, Kentucky has been on par (and in some cases far better than) its G.O.A.T. predecessors. Esherick still considers that ‘84 Georgetown defense the best of all time, and he won’t judge whether the Wildcats are better until after the season plays out. But he does find what Kentucky has done so far all the more impressive because today’s offenses are more difficult to contain.

In an interview with SLAM, Esherick added he believes today’s players are more skilled in passing, dribbling, shooting than players in the 1980s. Plus, “Calipari’s team is bigger than we were, and his big guys can move their feet very well. I’ve been impressed with how [last year’s] high school stars have bought into the defense.”

Digger Phelps, a long-time college basketball analyst and former head coach at Notre Dame, has studied and coached against most of Kentucky’s rivals for best all-time defense. He’s impressed with Kentucky’s ability to rebound, alter shots, block and steal inbound passes when pressing and that the older Wildcat players have taken the lead in defensive intensity. “This has taken the pressure off of the freshmen who have blended in,” he said.

One of those players, 6-10 forward Trey Lyles, has shown rapid improvement in recent weeks. In the opening minutes against Ole Miss, he quickly closed out on a three-point attempt by 6-3 Jarvis Summers for one of Kentucky’s seven blocks** on the night. Another one came just a couple minutes later when the Rebels’ 6-6 LaDarius White received a pass at the top of the arc and took two long dribbles down the right side of the paint. White then launched into the air for what should have been a floater or layup against most teams.

Not at Rupp.

Swooping into the frame from behind was 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who obliterated White’s attempt and sent him sliding into photographers under the stanchion while deflecting the ball to point guard Tyler Eulis.

No team in college basketball history can match Kentucky’s overall height, which features three 6-6 guards and six players at 6-9 or taller. In limited minutes Cauley-Stein is proving just as disruptive a defender as Bill Walton was for UCLA, or Bill Russell for the University of San Francisco, or Stacey Augmon for UNLV. Yet those stars didn’t have the same quality of mobile bigs surrounding them.

Augmon’s 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, which finished 34-1 and were forcing 20.5 turnovers a game while limiting foes to 38 percent shooting*** two and half months into that season, no doubt were an imposing force. But 2014-15 Kentucky has been superior in overall team defensive statistics despite playing better opponents. “UNLV was not as big and physical as this team,” added Phelps, now an analyst for Campus Insiders. “Kentucky has more half-court physical dominance because of their size.”

Plus, the Wildcats have more depth. UNLV ‘91 had five future NBA players, and four future first rounders including a No. 1 overall pick in Larry Johnson. predicts Kentucky has seven future NBA players—including five future first rounders. More offensive firepower in practice translates into better defense in games.

Yes, Kentucky failed to play to its defensive potential in its SEC opener. For too long in the first half it acted like it was playing Buffalo or Boston U. instead of dialing in like it did against UCLA and Kansas. Despite the hiccup, it’s still an overwhelming favorite in its next game against Texas A&M. Kentucky is still, by far, the SEC title frontrunner. And they’re still the overwhelming favorite to win the 2015 NCAA basketball championship.

Ole Miss couldn’t knock off the Wildcats, but at some point in the next 17 SEC games somebody will. The conference is on the upswing, as underrated in basketball as it was overrated in football. Every team will treat Kentucky like a title bout.

When that first loss happens, how much shine will it take off Kentucky’s historic start? Digger Phelps**** believes it’s hard to gauge yet how good Kentucky is because “until this point Kentucky has played name schools but the schools are having a down year, with the exception of Louisville.” He points out Kansas lost at Temple, UCLA has lost five straight games, North Carolina lost to Iowa, Notre Dame and Butler, while Texas was blown out at home by Oklahoma, and also lost to the Huskies at home. Still, Kentucky’s early season strength of schedule is better than most of its G.O.A.T. predecessors and it is far superior to the Virginia Cavaliers’ (the only program this season approaching the Wildcats in overall defensive rankings).

Looking beyond mere numbers, let’s not forget great defense reflects great chemistry. Great college teams are made of great teammates: They hustle to cover each other’s mistakes when they genuinely like each other. So far, Kentucky coach John Calipari has done a masterful job of keeping everybody’s egos in check and minutes equally distributed. But that could change as the games get increasingly tough, Calipari’s two-platoon system continues to go by the wayside and certain players have to take back seats to others.

Sophomore point guard Andrew Harrison has lately been especially up-and-down. What happens if coaches decide freshman Tyler Ulis—who’s been a more consistent force with the exception of the Ole Miss game—starts getting more minutes as a closer? If Andrew doesn’t take kindly to that demotion, would his attitude affect his twin Aaron’s play? This is just a thought experiment, not meant to reflect what so far as been a very cohesive unit, but it is the sort of issue that crops up in teams loaded with former prep superstars.

External pressures always mount at Kentucky as the season rolls on. How its still relatively inexperienced players deal with them behind closed doors will dictate how many records they break on the court. “As you get into the season, you don’t know how to deal with controversy until it happens, and it’s gonna happen,” says Bobby Wilkerson, who in the mid 1970s was part of one of the best defensive backcourts ever.

Wilkerson’s 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers were the last undefeated Division I champions. He firsthand knows how tough it is to “sacrifice with the right heart and to come together for the same goals” without let up.

There’s a million and one ways a modern big-time basketball program can go off track in the glare of a nation’s Klieg light. Guarding against this will be the Wildcats’ toughest assignment of all.

Evin Demirel writes more about SEC basketball on Twitter and his Arkansas-centric blog.

*Georgetown statistics courtesy of the Georgetown Basketball History Project. Steals and blocks were not then included in official box scores.
** Kentucky averages 8.1 blocks per game. The all-time NCAA leader is Georgetown ‘89, which behind Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning averaged 9.1. blocks a game. Esherick, also an assistant on that team, considers it an inferior defensive team to Patrick Ewing-era Hoyas because its perimeter defense was not as strong.
*** According to a February 13, 1991 article in The Record (Bergen County, NJ).
**** Phelps believes the best defensive teams of all time are the Bill Walton-era UCLA Bruins of the early 1970s, 1975-76 Indiana and Duke’s national title teams. Follow him @DiggerPhelps and @CampusInsiders.