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NCAA Tournament: Defense giving Kentucky an identity thus far in the postseason

Kentucky freshmen Hamidou Diallo, left, and Shai Gillgeous-Alexander, right, share a laugh during an open practice last week at Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho. The Wildcats are having fun on both ends of the court and will continue play in the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Atlanta, Georgia. (Kentucky Today/Keith Taylor)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

BOISE — Kentucky has finally established an identity.

“Our identity is defensively,” Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That’s the first thing we focus on going into every game. We know if we shut down the other team, we are capable (of winning). We just go into every game trying to lock up the other opponent.”

During the postseason, the Wildcats (26-10) have developed a passion for defense while facing teams that employ grind outs, offensive shootouts and every offensive style that can fit any given playbook.

Kentucky has won nine of its last 10 games going into the South Region semifinals and defeated a pair of perimeter-shooting teams — Davidson and Buffalo — in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Although both teams combined for 18 3-pointers against the Wildcats, Kentucky used its defense to keep both teams from getting into a consistent rhythm.

“We got length on the defensive end,” Kentucky freshman forward PJ Washington said. “We tried to contest shots and get rebounds. We wanted to play our game.”

The Wildcats also are becoming a versatile team on the offensive end of the floor. Forced into an up-tempo encounter against the Bulls, Kentucky didn’t back down and made several timely 3-pointers to advance to the second leg of the tournament.

“We feel like we’re the best running team in the country,” Washington said. “We can run with anybody. People usually try to slow us down, but they wanted to run with us. We condition every day so we don’t get tired.”

A struggle early on both ends of the floor, especially early, the Wildcats began taking heed to what it would take to be successful. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took the lead and the rest of his teammates followed.

“About mid-point during the season, I started watching a lot of film,” he said. “I was really taking what coach (John Calipari) was asking of me, what this team needed me to do. I just tackled it. Once I cleared my role out, I worked on my game and got better every day.”

Once Gilgeous-Alexander adjusted to his role as point-guard and being the team leader, it made things easier for the rest of his teammates.

“Everybody bought into the process,” Washington said. “Everybody learned their role and everybody started getting in the gym and working in their own self and we started coming out (every game) and playing as a team.”

The roster — top to bottom — acknowledges Gilgeous-Alexander as the team leader and like the way the freshman guard has carried the team on his shoulders during most of the season.

“He’s been a leader for us and he’s a great player,” Washington said. “He’s been taking on all the pressure on him and we’ve just been riding him and playing well through him and he’s been great for us.”

Now that the Wildcats are in a groove and have been since the league tournament, the ultimate goal is to reach the Final Four and win a national title. The quest begins Thursday at Phillips Arena in Atlanta and freshman guard Hamidou Diallo is anxious for the next step in the Big Dance.

“Nobody wants to go home, so we’re just going to have to keep playing and make it to San Antonio,” he said with a smile.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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