Not all flash: Kentucky's blue-collar defense sets it apart
Philadelphia, PA – While it may appear that Kentucky head stone-unturned salesman more interested in the commodity's worth than its well being.
He sold the likes of Derrick Rose, Dajuan Wagner and Tyreke Evans as the cornerstones of Memphis' reclamation project. He unabashedly attacked the recruiting trail with a vigor that set him apart from most with coaching bloodlines. He dressed and talked the part of vibrancy, an aura that attracted some of the East coast's flashiest players.
His teams played with the swagger and an expectation of success. Calipari's Tigers scored in bunches, assaulted opposing defenses and tried to outrun and outscore the opposition.
He won and won, and won more some at Memphis... until he lost, a magical 2007-2008 season vacated by major NCAA violations that occurred during his watch.
His naysayers didn't bat an eye at violations, but the bump in the road didn't deter Calipari, or his message. He moved on to Lexington in 2009, and the flock of high school standouts followed. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins were Calipari's first big scores, and they led the Wildcats to an Elite Eight. One year later, Kentucky was back in the Final Four.
So, on the surface, this Calipari team would seemingly fit in with all of the others. There is a veteran presence (Darius Miller), a deadly shooter (Doron Lamb), a preseason All-America talent (Terrence Jones) and a highly-touted freshmen class led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.
But this isn't a typical Calipari team. The talent level is still high, but the game isn't an end-to-end track meet. The guards aren't the focal point. Outscoring the competition is still the goal, but a game in the 60s works just fine.
These Wildcats play with dirt in their nails and sweat on their brow. They bump you off the block and push you to the edge of frustration with speed and length best used on the defensive end of the floor.
Don't get me wrong, on a given night any of these players could put up 20-plus points without a thought, but that isn't the mindset. These Wildcats take more joy out of blocked shots and keeping their opponents off the scoreboard. They use their defense to stifle their competition's spirit then turn a Davis swat into a fast-break opportunity.
The numbers speak volumes. With a little under five minutes remaining in the first half Saturday night, Vanderbilt -- a solid offense built around two veteran guards and Festus Ezeli in the middle -- had managed just 13 points. Vanderbilt, like a good team at home usually does, found a groove and momentarily took the lead in the second half before, again, Kentucky's defense took over. Brad Tinsley's jumper with 4:09 to go was Vanderbilt's final field goal of the game. Davis finished with seven blocks -- four in the final seven minutes; and his teammates can be more aggressive, glued to perimeter shooters' shots, when they aren't afraid of being beaten off the dribble.
The lack of fear comes from Davis' mammoth presence in the middle. Gilchrist and Jones are no slouches inside either. Jones blocked four shots on Saturday night, while Gilchrist is third on the team with 28 for the season. Jones is just in front with 47, and Davis soars above them both with an astonishing 127. The numbers aren't just in shots swatted, but attempts altered. Vanderbilt made just 36.5 percent of its shots on Saturday, which was actually better than the opponents' field goal percentage entering the game (35.8). Before Saturday, Kentucky had held its previous five opponents to an average of 49.8 points per game, and even counting the contest in Nashville, the Wildcats have yielded 70-plus points just once since their only loss of the season on December 12th at Indiana. They have the nation's stingiest defense based on field goal percentage, lead the country in blocks by leaps and bounds and stand sixth in overall defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com.
Calipari's Memphis teams, and even his early Kentucky outfits, have finished with solid defensive metrics, but the formula was based on flash, pressure and turnovers. These Wildcats are methodical, comfortable in the half-court, grind-it-out game that makes the Kentucky blue look more like Wisconsin red. As one assistant coach on a team that lost to Kentucky this season said, "They make you bleed to death possession by possession."
It's slow and painful for opponents, and if it wasn't for a 10-second stretch late in Bloomington, these Wildcats would be in discussions for the record books playing a possession-by-possession game that may not match their head coach's persona, but the outcomes meet the "salesman's" expectations perfectly.
THOUGHTS FROM THE WEEK THAT WAS
1. We touched on this when discussing NCAA changes back before the New Year, but UConn didn't stack up with the new APR (academic performance results), and as a result will not be allowed to compete in the 2013 national championship tournament. Under the new rules approved in October, a school must have a two- year average score of 930 or a four-year average score of 900 on the NCAA's annual Academic Progress Rate. The Connecticut basketball program scored an 826 for the 2009-10 academic year, and its score for 2010-2011 is expected to be around 975, which would only give it a two-year average of 900.5 and a four-year average of 888.5. It requested a waiver last month, proposing alternate penalties, including playing a shorter schedule and forfeiting the revenue awarded to the Big East for participating in the 2013 tournament. That waiver was turned down by the NCAA this past Friday, leaving a lot of uncertainty surrounding the defending national champions.
2. Bruce Weber's time at Illinois may be running out. Athletic director Mike Thomas refused to give the embattled coach a vote of confidence on Saturday, saying he would evaluate Weber's job at season's end. The Illini have now lost three straight and six of seven after falling at Michigan, 70-61, on Sunday. Illinois is now 16-9 and 5-7 in the Big Ten with a schedule that includes a home date with Purdue and a trip to Ohio State in the next week-plus. Weber has won 209 games at Illinois and has made the NCAA Tournament six times in his first eight seasons, but the national championship game appearance during the 2004-2005 season seems like a long time ago.
3. North Carolina lacks a killer instinct and still goes through long spells of defensive ineptitude. The Tar Heels had a 13-point lead in the second half and a 10-point edge with about three minutes to play before unraveling in an 85-84 loss to Duke last Wednesday. Give credit where credit is due. Austin Rivers played the best game of his young career, which included a shot that will go down in the lore of this rivalry -- a game-winning 25-footer over UNC 7-footer Tyler Zeller. Yet, the Tar Heels were careless down the stretch, missed many opportunities early in the second half to put the game away, went under perimeter screens defensively (what is this, middle school?) and lacked the toughness to withstand Duke's late barrage. It's a disconcerting trait that reared its ugly head again, and one has to wonder -- despite the three lottery picks and loads of talent in its top seven scorers -- if North Carolina is built to persevere through March's road bumps.
1. Kentucky (25-1): Davis' drive to a triple crown (national player of the year, freshman of the year, defensive player of the year) was aided by his significant impact on the outcome of Saturday's win at Vanderbilt. Calipari wanted to be "tested," and his team responded after briefly getting knocked back on its heels against the Commodores. Davis had 15 points and eight rebounds to go with his seven swats.
2. Syracuse (25-1): One takeaway from the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game -- aptly brought up by ESPN's Dick Vitale -- was Vandy's success playing zone. It allowed the Commodores to pack it in on Kentucky's size and force the Wildcats to make perimeter shots. Lamb is a 48 percent three-pointer shooter, but only one other player (Miller) is above 37 percent. It would be interesting to see Kentucky try to solve the Syracuse zone with Fab Melo back in the middle.
3. Missouri (23-2): When its shooters are on, there may not be a team that can stop the Tigers. Missouri drained half of its three-point attempts (14-of-28) in a 72-57 victory over Baylor on Saturday. Over half of the Tigers' shots were from beyond the thin black arc, a tell-tale sign of its reliance, and success rate, on long-range shooting. The Bears were caught in the cross hairs.
4. Kansas (20-5): No team had a better week than the Jayhawks, who won easily at Baylor then turned around and disposed of pesky Oklahoma State on Saturday. Jeff Withey was the star against the Bears, as he and Thomas Robinson dominated Baylor's much-ballyhooed front line (25 and five for Withey and 15 and 11 for Robinson). Robinson, the co-favorite with Kentucky's Davis for national player of the year honors, then scored 24 with 14 boards against the Cowboys. In a trap game, Kansas jumped out to a 51-24 halftime lead.
5. Ohio State (21-4): The Buckeyes' lone issue is William Buford's inconsistency. After starring and turning the corner (or so we and head coach Thad Matta thought) against Purdue, he made just 2-of-2 shots and scored only four points in the 58-48 home loss to Michigan State.
6. North Carolina (21-4): Tyler Zeller, after a three-minute stretch from hell against Duke, responded with 25 points and nine boards in an all-important 70-52 rebound against Virginia.
7. Duke (21-4): I'm chalking up the Plumlees' dominance against Maryland to the Terrapins porous front line. However, if they can replicate Saturday's performance (I have my doubts), the Blue Devils suddenly become far more dangerous.
8. Michigan State (20-5): The Spartans can beat anyone because they play defense in their opponents' shorts. They held the Buckeyes to 26 percent shooting on the night and won despite a 5-of-16 effort from star Draymond Green.
9. Baylor (21-4): The Bears can't beat Kansas or Missouri. We have established that. So, who are these Bears? They have good non-conference wins over Northwestern, BYU, West Virginia and Mississippi State, but unless Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller become more consistent, the guards -- while better than advertised -- can only pick up the slack to an extent against the nation's best teams.
10. Georgetown (19-5): Georgetown had every opportunity for a big week, but lost in overtime to Syracuse, then responded to beat St. John's. I'm not sure the Hoyas are the nation's 10th-best team, but who else deserves this slot?
11. UNLV (22-4): Maybe the Runnin' Rebels, but the road woes (2-2 in conference road games) and inability to close out competition puts them a step below. They had San Diego State on the ropes; up 13 at home in the second half, yet needed a turnover in the closing seconds to avoid a stunning defeat.
12. Marquette (21-5): In a week of carnage, all it takes is victories over DePaul and Cincinnati to vault up the rankings. The Golden Eagles' stars (Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder with 23 points apiece) led a 95-point explosion against Cincinnati.
13. Murray State (24-1): You are allowed one slip up, and it came in a game that was once in hand. The Racers justifiably panicked down the stretch with Isaiah Cannon committing several unforced errors in the final minute. Now that the weight of an unbeaten season is off their shoulders, I'm judging the Racers the rest of the way.
14. Wisconsin (19-6): Wisconsin didn't score in the final seven minutes, 44 seconds of regulation, yet still beat Minnesota in overtime, 68-61, last Thursday. It was a true testament to the Badgers' defense, but they may want to light up the scoreboard down the stretch this Thursday at Michigan State.
15. Florida (19-6): Remember, when at 19-4 most national columnists -- yours truly included -- hedged our bets on the Gators. A 20-point waxing at Kentucky followed by a loss to Tennessee in their only home game until February 21 constitutes a bad week that could get worse. This week includes a pair of road games at hungry opponents (Alabama and Arkansas). The Gators also close the regular season against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.