Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Defensive Transformation

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 29th, 2016

Speaking after Kentucky’s beatdown of Missouri on Wednesday night, coach John Calipari talked about desperation. He credited his team’s ugly loss at Auburn as the catalyst for his team’s turnaround. “If we hadn’t lost that game, I may not have been able to get this team to think more desperate,” Calipari said. The Auburn loss gave Kentucky its second conference defeat, and had to leave Calipari wondering what was wrong with his post players. The Wildcats desperately needed something extra from its big men, and they have received it in recent outings. Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere have been more potent offensively of late, while also providing Kentucky a defensive presence that better approximates what we are used to seeing from a Calipari-coached team.

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Skal Labissiere is finally giving Kentucky the rim protector it needs. (Photo: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

If you can’t defend Missouri, you can’t defend. In conference play, the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in both offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. However, Kentucky hasn’t exactly played well defensively for much of the year. In the seven games after its loss to Ohio State and on through the loss at Auburn, Kentucky allowed more than a point per possession five times. For a point of reference, last season’s undefeated Kentucky team only allowed four teams to score above a point per possession during the entire regular season. But since the loss to Auburn, the Cats have held Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and now Missouri under that mark, including a season-best .77 PPP to Mizzou. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we are looking for the change that sparked the sudden improvement in Kentucky’s defense.

To measure Kentucky’s defensive impact, we charted every defensive possession for the Wildcats in a defensive score sheet. If you have followed Freeze Frame in the past, you may know the general idea. If not, the concept came from Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper, the quintessential guide to tempo-free basketball statistics. David Hess has also done some great work here in charting Kansas games on his Audacity of Hoops blog.

To explain the process as simply as possible, we charted every defensive possession to tally the number of forced misses, forced turnovers, made field goals, defensive rebounds, and fouls resulting in free throws for each defensive player. Those numbers are then used to give us three summary statistics of a player’s defensive box score:

  • Defensive possession percentage (DPoss%): The percentage of a team’s overall possessions that end with the offensive player that the defender is guarding. This number tells you how involved the defender was in on-ball defense.
  • Stop %: The percentage of possessions that a player is involved in that results with the offensive team failing to score a point.
  • Defensive rating (DRtg): A formula for the number of points per 100 possessions that the player allows while on the floor.

Against Missouri, Willis led Kentucky in defensive rating, and Labissiere was the most active player (who played significant minutes) on the entire roster with a 31.6 defensive possession percentage.

Kentucky's defensive score sheet against Missouri.

Kentucky’s defensive score sheet against Missouri.

Before Kentucky’s game against Auburn on January 16th, Calipari blasted Willis’ defense, saying, “but (Willis’) habits are so bad. Like what’s the word below so-bad?” Calipari sang a different tune after the junior forward put in 12 points and 12 rebounds in a 31 minute performance against the Tigers. “I was so happy for him,” Calipari said. “Rebounded with two hands. If you ask me, he moved by all the other bigs. That’s my opinion. But now he’s got to be consistent. But he rebounded and tried. I was just proud of him.”

Willis didn’t stop there. Over his last four games, he’s averaged a double double with 12.3 points and 10 rebounds per game. Willis has been praised for his increase in confidence by Calipari, and dubbed as a potential X-man for the Wildcats by the good people over at A Sea of Blue. His ability to change the Kentucky offense by operating as a stretch four is well-covered in the ASOB post, but Willis’ offensive skill was never the issue. And make no mistake, Willis is still on the floor for his offense, most notably the three-point shooting UK desperately need more of in its halfcourt sets. However, his improved defense and rebounding are enabling him to stay on the floor. He more than held his own on Wednesday against Missouri – remaining active on the defensive glass, putting a hand up to force missed shots, and allowing very few made field goals from opposing offensive players.

In speaking with Rush the Court on Thursday, Sean Farnham of ESPN praised Willis as key to Kentucky’s transformation. “Has Kentucky figured out who they are? Yeah, they have. And a big part of that actually is not the star. Not the lottery pick. Not the green room guy. It’s Derek Willis,” Farnham said. “I think Derek Willis has been the key. And it started for Derek Willis actually in the game against Mississippi State. And it’s not because of the scoring. He’s always been able to shoot the ball. But the bigger issue has been his inability to defend or rebound the basketball. He was challenged going to the half after he shot a three, made a three on one end and he gave up a three to Malik Newman right at the buzzer, and let’s just say he was politely talked to as he walked off the floor there. And his minutes were going to decrease immediately because of that. But he’s figured it out. He’s rebounded. He’s had a couple of double-doubles. He’s playing much better. And that’s been a big key.“

As Farnham pointed out, Willis’ improved ability to guard the perimeter has been key to the Wildcat’s overall improvement. Kentucky’s other defenders do not need to help Willis as much now, which helps the Wildcats’ overall three-point defense. With his full-time switch to the power forward position, his quickness is now a relative advantage. He mostly matches up with bigger post players, but Kentucky tendency to switch on pick and rolls does sometimes put him in a position where he has to guard speedier wings. Here we see Willis matched up with 6’5” Missouri sophomore Namon Wright.

Willis guards a smaller wing on the perimeter.

Willis guards a smaller wing on the perimeter.

You can see that Willis displays enough lateral quickness to stay with Wright on the drive to the lane.

Willis has the athleticism to defend in one on one situations.

Willis has the athleticism to defend on the perimeter in one-on-one situations.

Willis stays with Wright all the way to the basket. With Poythress playing the five, there is no true rim protector on the floor to erase any mistake by the perimeter defenders. The guards dig down just a little, but still stay relatively close to the perimeter shooters, which leaves Willis to guard his man in the post on his own. Willis forces the bad shot by Wright here and is able to grab the ball to start the Kentucky fast break.

Willis is in a one on one situation in the post, defending well.

Willis defends well in a one-on-one situation in the post.

Speaking of the lack of rim protection, Labissiere’s emergence is beginning to fill that need. Kentucky’s interior defense has struggled this season, comparing very unfavorably to all of Calipari’s previous UK teams. Typically a hallmark of Calipari’s Wildcats, the 2015-16 team has lacked the enforcer in the middle to make up for others’ mistakes. After finishing with a season high five blocks against Mizzou, Kentucky may finally be able to rely on Labissiere to block shots if the Wildcats have a breakdown on the perimeter.

The hallmark of John Calipari's Kentucky teams.

Kentucky’s interior defense with national ranks in parenthesis.

Labissiere was far more aggressive on Wednesday, coming over from the help side for some monstrous blocks. Both Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe were beaten off the dribble, but Labissiere slid over from the help side to save the day.

Labissiere emerging into a defensive presence.

Skal Labissiere is emerging into a defensive presence for the Wildcats.

Kentucky desperately needed more from its big men on both ends of the floor, and Calipari has gotten it recently from Willis and Labissiere. With a huge road game in Lawrence coming up this weekend, Kentucky will need a continued presence from these breakout players. It may have been just one game against the SEC’s worst offense, but the defensive play of Willis and Labissiere should give the Wildcats hope that their best is yet to come.

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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