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After tough draw, defensive play the key for Wildcats making deep run in NCAA Tournament


Kentucky got a tough draw in the NCAA Tournament with six teams in its region ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25, and two more listed at the top of the others receiving votes category.

Among those six ranked teams is 10-seed Wichita State, the No. 8 team in the latest Ken Pomeroy rankings, which Kentucky could potentially face in the second round should both the Shockers and Wildcats win their first-round games Friday in Indianapolis.

In order for second-seeded Kentucky (29-5) to advance to that stage and beyond, it knows it must do one thing more than anything else.

UK improved on its defense with increased effort and desperation. The end result has seen a decline in opponents’ points per possession, better work on the glass and tighter defense along the perimeter (UK Athletics Photo by Chet White)

“The whole key to us will be defense,” head coach John Calipari said. “If we continue to guard, we’ll have a nice little run. We’ll see what happens. But that’s where we’re – our defense is what we are. And I don’t worry about offense with this group because we’re so – we’re fast, we can shoot it, we can post it, play pick-and-roll, play against zone.

“Derek Willis stretches the defense. Wenyen (Gabriel) is playing better now. But if we don’t defend, we’ll lose real fast, like real fast. We guard and play with great energy and disrupt and do the things we’ve been doing, it should be a fun NCAA Tournament.”

Early in the year, it was Kentucky’s offense that stole the headlines and led UK up to a No. 1 national ranking for two weeks in November. The Wildcats were flying up and down the court as one of the fastest teams in the country, scoring more than 100 points in three straight games and 93-plus points in seven of eight games.

As the season progressed, teams refined how they played against Kentucky and began sending fewer players to the glass and more players back on defense following shots. As that happened, UK hit its much talked about rut, losing three of four games.

During the Wildcats’ reboot, Kentucky improved upon its half-court offense and learned how to play grind-it-out basketball, making Calipari more confident with his offense because it was now much more multi-dimensional.

“We’ll score just because of our talent, our speed, the ability to shoot the ball from different positions,” Calipari said.

UK also improved on its defense with increased effort and desperation. The end result has seen a decline in opponents’ points per possession, better work on the glass and tighter defense along the perimeter.

“The way we’ve been playing defense is the reason we’ve been winning,” senior guard Dominique Hawkins said. “If we continue to do that we’ll definitely advance.”

Willis attributed UK’s improved defense to a sense of urgency coming with the season winding down.

“You have to be desperate and it’s the last time playing college basketball and you want to leave it all out on the court,” Willis said.

Against 15th-seeded Northern Kentucky (24-10), the Wildcats will face a volume 3-point shooting team. The Norse scores more than 35 percent of their points off 3-pointers, which ranks 59th nationally, according to college basketball analytics guru Ken Pomeroy. NKU hit more than 36 percent of its 3-point attempts and nearly 52 percent of its 2-pointers.

After playing 21 games against conference opponents, who the coaches are much more familiar with having played against them every season, UK will now go back to scheming against unfamiliar opponents and doing so with limited time.

“We’re going to talk as a staff,” Calipari said. “Are there any defensive weaknesses that we have that they may try to exploit? And if they do, let’s not surrender like we did last year. Let’s not say, if these don’t play well – these guys – we lose. We’ll play five guards. We’ll do – what do you do, how do we do this. And we’ll probably discuss that and then we’ll work on it a bit.”

Calipari likes that his team now has “more bullets in the gun” with both how they attack teams offensively as well as defensively with zone looks and an improving press. But he was quick to say that whatever happens to UK the rest of the way will be based on how the Cats defend.

“The biggest thing is we got really good players,” Calipari said. “If they defend, we’ll have a chance in every game we play. If they will just come out and say, we’re going to be the best defense. We’ll score just because of our talent, our speed, the ability to shoot the ball from different positions.”

Kentucky takes on Northern Kentucky in first round play Friday. The game will begin at approximately 9:40 p.m. and be televised by CBS.

From UK Athletics


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