Is "40 minutes of dread" dead?
The cutesy name coined by Coach Matthew Mitchell, the aggressive, pressure-packed defense that has forced Kentucky opponents into 800 or more turnovers for four straight seasons, seems to have lost some of its bite.
The sixth-ranked Cats' nonconference opponents averaged 18.2 more points a game this season compared to last. UK's turnover margin is just 10.3 compared to 14.5 at this point two seasons ago.
Kentucky, 10th in the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage defense and 11th in blocked shots with 35 fewer than this time last season, has forced 29 fewer turnovers, too.
But if SEC foes are writing the obituary on UK's dreaded defense, senior Kastine Evans thinks her team will force a rewrite by season's end.
"We've had a lot more time with classes being over with to get to work on defense a lot more," the guard said as UK prepared to open league play at Alabama (7-6) on Thursday afternoon.
"It's something we've done every day since we got back. It's becoming more of a point of emphasis in practices. I expect the numbers to reflect that, especially in SEC play."
The story the defensive numbers don't tell is how much UK has improved on the other side of the floor, where the Cats are No. 1 in the league and No. 3 in the nation in scoring offense at 94.5 points a game.
Kentucky is averaging 16.7 points more per game going into league play than it was last season. The Cats have brought up their field goal percentage (2.7 percent) and three-point field goal percentage (3.3).
UK spent an entire summer focused on getting better offensively, paying close attention to positioning, ball movement and production in the half-court sets.
Those were all things Mitchell thought were lacking in big games, like the one against Connecticut that ended UK's season a game shy of the Final Four.
"We felt, big picture-wise what we needed to do was take a step forward offensively," Mitchell explained.
And that may have come at a cost.
"With the new offense we put in, we had to pick and choose what we were going to work on the most," Evans explained.
But now that the Cats (12-1) are more comfortable with their offensive execution, they can go back to doing what they do best: defense.
It's not like the defense has struggled mightily, Mitchell points out. Kentucky is still third in the nation in steals a game (13.3) and sixth in turnover margin (8.62).
The coach just thinks his team can polish up a few things and become dreaded again.
"We're just not quite as tight and sharp as a team as I'd like for us to be or we're not as sharp as we need to be as a team to be the kind of team we want to become," he said, noting that this down time in the classroom has meant some "quality time" working on defensive fundamentals like stance, footwork, positioning.
Mitchell also noted that the way games are being called now — defenders being whistled for bumps and second touches more consistently — may mean that UK's numbers will never be what they once were.
That doesn't mean the Cats can't win with defense, though, which is why UK has been working at closing out on shooters and pressuring ball handlers.
"We need more ball pressure, especially with the change of rules with the two touches had us back a lot more," Evans explained. "Seeing how the season has gone and what the refs are allowing, through experience, we're getting a much better feel for what we can and cannot do."
UK's Duke loss, which Evans said was one of the more physical games of the season, helped the Cats prepare for league play, which starts Thursday.
It will be a tough road for Kentucky to earn its second regular-season title in three years with four other ranked teams, including No. 5 Tennessee, No. 13 South Carolina, No. 16 Louisiana State and No. 19 Georgia, not to mention unbeaten Arkansas,
Nine of the league's 14 teams have two losses or fewer.
His team is going to have to reassert itself defensively to reach some of the goals it made at the beginning of the season, Mitchell said.
But the coach is quite confident the dread isn't dead.
No. 6 Kentucky at Alabama
When: 3 p.m.
Records: Kentucky 12-1, Alabama 7-6
Series: Kentucky leads 23-16
Last meeting: Kentucky won 87-70 on Jan. 6, 2013, at Tuscaloosa, Ala.
TV: None | Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Arkansas 13-0 Vanderbilt 11-2
Miss. St. 13-1 LSU 10-2
Georgia 12-1 Florida 10-3
Kentucky 12-1 Auburn 9-4
So. Carolina12-1 Texas A&M 9-4
Tennessee 11-1 Mississippi 9-5
Missouri 11-2 Alabama 7-6
Kentucky at Alabama, 3 p.m.
Missouri at Mississippi, 7
LSU at Tennessee, 7
Mississippi St. at Florida, 7
UTEP at Texas A&M, 7
South Carolina at Arkansas, 8
Georgia at Vanderbilt, 9
UK Scores, schedule
Home games in capital lettersAll times p.m. and Eastern
Date Opponent Result
Nov. 8 At Marist W, 75-61
Nov. 10 At Wagner W, 96-57
Nov. 13 GEORGIA SOUTHERN W, 103-38
Nov. 17 CENTRAL MICHIGAN W, 96-74
Nov. 21 LIPSCOMB W, 116-49
Nov. 24At Middle Tennessee St.W, 84-72
Nov. 27 BRADLEY W, 117-77
Dec. 1 LOUISVILLE W, 69-64
Dec. 6 a-Baylor W, 133-130 (4OT)
Dec. 12 At DePaul W, 96-85
Dec. 15 EAST TENNESSEE ST. W, 73-56
Dec. 22 b-DUKE L, 69-61
Dec. 29 GRAMBLING STATE W, 109-46
Date Opponent Time
Jan. 2 At Alabama 3
Jan. 5 FLORIDA 3
Jan. 9 At South Carolina 7
Jan. 12 MISSOURI 5
Jan. 19 At Auburn 2
Jan. 23 ALABAMA 7
Jan. 26 ARKANSAS 1
Jan. 30 At Georgia 9
Feb. 2 LSU Noon
Feb. 9 At Florida Noon
Feb. 13 MISSISSIPPI 7
Feb. 16 At Tennessee 1
Feb. 20 SOUTH CAROLINA 7
Feb. 23 At Texas A&M 2
Feb. 27 At Mississippi State 8
Mar. 2 VANDERBILT 4
Mar. 5-9 d-SEC Tournament TBA
a-At AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas; b-At Rupp Arena; c-At Duluth, Ga.
NO. 6 KENTUCKY (12-1)
Starters — Bria Goss, 5-10, Jr., G (10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Kastine Evans, 5-9, Sr. (11.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Janee Thompson, 5-6, So., PG; (11.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 3.2 apg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Sr., F (10.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg); Azia Bishop, 6-3, Jr., F (6.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
Key reserves — Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, Jr., G (12.6 ppg, 3.8 apg); Makayla Epps, 5-10, Fr., G (5.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg); Linnae Harper, 5-8, Fr., G (7.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Sr., G (5.6 ppg); Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, Jr. (3.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg).
Starters — Daisha Simmons, 5-10, Jr., G (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.2 apg); Shafontaye Myers, 5-8, Sr., G (14.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg); Ashley Williams, 6-0, Fr., F (11.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg); Nikki Hegstetter, 6-2, So., F (6.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Khadijah Carter, 6-1, So., F (6.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg).
Key reserves — Briana Hutchen, 6-1, Jr., F (4.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Brittany Jack, 6-0, Jr., F (2.6 ppg); Emily Davis, 6-1, So., G (2.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg); Sharin Rivers, 5-3, Jr., G (1.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg).