Live. Breathe. Blue. Kentucky Basketball - The Emperor Has No Clothes

by Dr. JOHN HUANG (LEXINGTON, KY)
Breaking Point: Kentucky's defensive woes threaten championship dreams (Dr. Michael Huang Photo) Breaking Point: Kentucky's defensive woes threaten championship dreams (Dr. Michael Huang Photo)

Kentucky’s 79 – 62 beatdown at the hands of South Carolina exposed an ugly truth. Let’s face it, we all had an inkling of this truth early on. As the season progressed, the analytics confirmed it. All it took to finally unveil the truth for all the world to witness was a punch in the mouth by a not-so-great Gamecock team.

The dirty truth is that this Kentucky team can’t play defense. Whether defending pick and rolls, inbounds plays, half-court or full-court sets, unless there’s drastic improvement, the Wildcats have no chance at title No. 9.

There, I said it. The emperor has no clothes. With thirteen games to go in the regular season, there’s no room for sugarcoating and simply not much time to right the ship.

The Kentucky coaches are already bailing water. They see what’s happening in practice every day.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” admitted associate coach Chin Coleman, the team’s defensive guru. “We obviously can get better in a lot of different areas. We’re not at our peak right now. We don’t want to be at our peak right now. We understand the process.”

With all of Big Blue Nation ready to panic the minute the ship starts to list, I suggest they expedite the process immediately.

First things first. Are the players even aware of the importance of defense? With habits ingrained through their AAU backgrounds, it’s hard to say. All these five-star recruits played in leagues where offense ruled the roost. Everyone regularly took plays off on the defensive end of the court. That’s a mindsight that’s hard to reverse.

I asked several of the players point blank if they thought defense wins championships.

“I’m an old timer,” confessed seven-foot-one freshman forward Aaron Bradshaw. “I’ve definitely heard that before. Defense actually does win championships. Chin (Coleman) enforces defense, defense, defense. It could be one little mistake that we do on the defensive side, [and we could lose] the whole thing. We just have to keep getting better on defense.”

“Absolutely,” concurred teammate Tre Mitchell, “We have to lock in.”

After the South Carolina loss, Kentucky’s Pomeroy defensive efficiency plummeted to No. 97 in the country. That’s not good. According to stats guru Corey Price, Kentucky’s opponents have scored 40 points in 11 of the last 17 halves played. In 91 seasons in the SEC, it’s the first time the Wildcats have allowed at least 77 points in each of their first six SEC games of a season.

“Defense plays a big role in the game of basketball,” acknowledged freshman point guard D.J. Wagner in response to whether he thinks defense wins championships. “Just getting stops. Because you have to get stops to be able to get the ball to scorers. We’re still working on it. We’re taking it day by day, so that’s something I’m still working at—staying in front of my defender as much as possible, making it easier for my teammates.”

Wagner’s not alone. Every one of his teammates regularly gets beat off the dribble. It’s mindboggling to think about. Regardless of the athleticism, size, speed, or talent on this Kentucky roster, opponents consistently get open drives to the bucket against this team, in addition to wide open dunks on inbounds passes.

Coaching has to play a big role in the breakdown. Or is it just that the players aren’t listening? Either way, guys running around like lost balls in high weeds might explain why this team is surrendering an incredible 77 points per game, which ranks 286th in all of college basketball—just 22 spots above Louisville (ouch) and a scant 76 rungs from the absolute bottom.

That’s obviously not going to cut it. Dating back to 2002, all but two teams winning the NCAA championship have been inside KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive metrics top 20. Prior to the Arkansas game, Kentucky ranked 4th offensively but just 97th defensively. The teams winning titles aren’t languishing near the bottom of the defensive pile.

Can Coach John Calipari turn it around? I’m not sure. He’s said on numerous occasions that it’s difficult relearning new habits. After all, a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The next few games will tell the tale on whether Kentucky’s defense bears good fruit. Take down the Razorbacks, and the schedule sets up for a nice potential run (Florida, Tennessee, Gonzaga, and Ole Miss at home with only Vanderbilt on the road). Lose in Bud Walton Arena, and you can kiss the conference championship, a favorable tournament seeding, and a potential Final Four appearance goodbye.

In the world of college basketball, superior defense may not guarantee you a championship. But Kentucky better start playing it a heck of a whole lot better than they’ve played it so far.

The coaches know that, and the players all say they know that. I’m just not sure they quite believe it yet in their hearts, minds, and souls.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently serves as a reporter and sports columnist for Nolan Group Media. You can follow Dr. Huang on social media @KYHuangs and check out all his books at https://www.Amazon.com/stores/Dr.-John-Huang/author/B092RKJBRD



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