Freeze Frame: Re-evaluating Kentucky’s Pick and Roll Defense After Beating Louisville

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 2nd, 2014

Kentucky’s porous defense was a hot topic last week as fans and analysts attempted to make sense of a preseason No. 1 team that has failed to meet historic (read: unrealistic) expectations. There was certainly reason for concern. Coming into Saturday’s Battle of the Bluegrass with Louisville, John Calipari’s squad had played exactly three top 50 teams, (according to KenPom’s efficiency ratings) and had come out of those three games winless. It wasn’t time to hit the panic button just yet, as the Wildcats had lost to three quality teams on the road or on neutral courts, but then again the Wildcats were running out of opportunities for quality wins to bolster its inadequate resume. They do play basketball in the SEC, after all. Saturday’s 73-66 win over Rick Pitino’s Cardinals was about as close to a must-win situation in December as Calipari’s young Wildcats will experience.

Kentucky's defensive score sheet vs. Louisville including Alex Poythress' monster defensive performance.

Kentucky’s defensive score sheet vs. Louisville including Alex Poythress’ monster defensive performance.

A lot of positives emerged for Kentucky on Saturday. The offense finally clicked, putting together 1.04 points per possession against a stingy defense. Andrew Harrison grew up before our very eyes, leading the offense down the stretch like a veteran point guard. And this was all with the Wildcats’ best offensive player, Julius Randle, on the bench after a 17-point first half performance. Perhaps nothing was more impressive, however, than Kentucky limiting KenPom’s most efficient offense (at the time!) to just 0.94 points per possession for the game. So how did a team that has had trouble guarding manage to stifle one of college basketball’s best teams at putting the ball in the basket?

Outside of a major deficit in a laundry list of intangibles that included heart, focus, communication, and energy, Kentucky’s pick and roll defense has been its most significant problem on the defensive end. You may remember — and if you are a Kentucky fan you may not be able to forget — that the Wildcats seemed lost in defeats to Baylor and North Carolina in perimeter pick and roll situations. Often, players would switch on all screens, resulting in a mismatch. The on-ball defender typically didn’t fight through to regain position, leaving Kentucky’s slower post players to make a pitiful attempt to contain the ball-handler. Contrastingly, against Louisville you will see that Kentucky’s big men utilized a soft hedge to contain Louisville’s guards from penetrating into the lane, while the Wildcat guards fought over ball screens with a vigor that we hadn’t seen from them this season.

In a play coming with 13:05 remaining in the first half, reserve center Dakari Johnson contains penetration as Andrew Harrison fights over the first screen. James Young then goes under the second screen as Johnson again provides a soft hedge to contain penetration. Aaron Harrison comes over to help and Kentucky forces the ball-handler into a trap.

This defensive strategy worked well because the Wildcat guards fought through the screen to get back into position. The importance of battling past the initial pick is evident in another play below where Louisville runs this same series of screens on the perimeter. This time it is guard Dominique Hawkins who displays toughness and speed in recovering his position between the ball-handler and the basket.

As you might expect, Pitino adjusts his offensive strategy towards the end of the first half to have guard Russ Smith split the defenders when the Wildcat bigs retreat to stop penetration. Willie Cauley-Stein stays back on the screen to leave too much room for a guard with Smith’s speed. Smith explodes through the hole for a dunk that leaves Rupp Arena gasping in awe.

Look at how much room Cauley-Stein gives Smith in this frozen frame.

Cauley-Stein leaves too much room for a guard like Russ Smith.

Cauley-Stein leaves too much room for a guard like Russ Smith.

In a second half counter-move, Calipari has Cauley-Stein body up to the screener to force the ball-handler to the outside, cutting off the middle.

In the below play, Cauley-Stein puts his arm on the screener to prevent the split again and to stop penetration up the middle. This time it resulted in a turnover.

WCS won't let the Cardinals split the defense this time.

WCS won’t let the Cardinals split the defense this time.

Calipari’s adjustments on Kentucky’s pick and roll defense drastically contributed to the Cats’ overall effectiveness in these situations, and ultimately led to the resume-boosting win. Guard play has been a sore spot for his team, and Calipari encouraged his young backcourt to fight in this one like they had a chip on their shoulder. Now the key will be to get them to play with that level of intensity every night out. Last week, I closed my evaluation of Kentucky’s defense with the sense that considerable improvement defensively would occur over time. Calipari shared the same optimism at his press conference last week saying: “This team at the end of the day will be a great defensive team. That’s what we need to be and we’re not.” Perhaps that growth process happened quicker than any of us thought.

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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