Analyzing Kentucky’s Improved DefensePosted by Brian Joyce on March 22nd, 2017
Kentucky scored at least 100 points five separate times this year so it is no surprise that the Wildcats’ offense has grabbed most of the headlines. When the season was on the line on Sunday afternoon, however, it was instead a strong defensive performance that propelled John Calipari‘s club into the Sweet Sixteen. In a season-low 62-possession grinder with the Shockers, the Wildcats proved they can win with defense by shutting down one of the 10 best offenses in college basketball.
Kentucky quietly owns a top 10 team defense (eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom), and it will need it to continue improving if this season is going to be extended. With UCLA looming and a potential Elite Eight matchup with North Carolina beyond that, the Wildcats will need to do better than allowing 97 points and 1.17 points per possession (PPP) to the Bruins and a season-high 100 points and 1.27 PPP to the Tar Heels.
Much of Kentucky’s defensive improvement is attributable to the interior play of freshman Bam Adebayo and senior Derek Willis. Fans have certainly noticed Adebayo’s offensive uptick, scoring double figures in his last 10 games, but he has also logged 14 blocks over the same period, including a particularly timely one over the weekend against Wichita State. The freshman’s true impact, however, isn’t seen in the shots he blocks inasmuch as the number of shots that he alters. Against the Shockers, for example, he forced 15 missed shots and two turnovers.
Willis has been a shot-blocking machine since March rolled around as well. The senior forward is usually on the floor because of his shooting ability, but his improved defense is keeping him there. As you can see from the defensive score sheet above, Willis ended the game against Wichita State with the third best defensive rating on the team. Calipari was particularly impressed with Willis’ rebounding and effort, saying, “I played Derek almost the whole half. He played well. Then Derek made the three in the corner, made a couple of threes, rebounded pretty good. Ended up with eight rebounds and nine points. Think of that. Three steals. Derek Willis.”
Kentucky has a golden opportunity to show how much its defense has improved since the first games with UCLA and North Carolina in December. That was a long time ago, however, and the Wildcats’ young team was not yet developed on the defensive end. To reach the Final Four for a fifth time in seven years, the defense of the last third of the season will need to show up. After a lockdown performance in the Round of 32 victory over Wichita State, it seems as if the Wildcats may have turned the corner.