It wasn’t long ago that John Calipari declared that Kentucky’s defense was the worst any of his teams had played. That’s no longer the case.
According to statistics savant Ken Pomeroy, Kentucky is playing better defense than any team in a Power Five conference since league play began. UK is allowing 88.3 points per 100 possessions to Southeastern Conference opponents, Pomeroy said in an email message.
That’s better than, say, Virginia, which has become synonymous with its Pack Line Defense. The Cavaliers have allowed 88.9 points per 100 possessions to Atlantic Coast Conference opponents going into this weekend, Pomeroy said.
“We’re just buying into what we have to do,” Nick Richards said Friday.
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He offered a bottom-line reason for UK’s night-and-day improvement on defense. “We hate losing,” he said. “Everybody on this team just loves winning. We’ve just got to do whatever it takes for us to win.”
In the last eight games, Kentucky has held opponents to a collective 35.9-percent shooting accuracy. That includes 29.7 percent from three-point range, which had been an area of concern. If you don’t count Auburn, which made 13 of 30 three-point shots, Kentucky’s other opponents in this span have shot with 34.5 percent accuracy overall and 27.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Assistant coach Tony Barbee, who substituted for Calipari at the media availability previewing UK’s game at Mississippi State on Saturday, acknowledged the Cats were playing “really well” on defense.
“The guys have taken the personal challenge on individually to not be the guy who breaks us down,” Barbee said. “When it becomes that important to you individually to protect each other collectively, then you can become pretty good, especially with the pieces we have.”
With four viable “bigs,” UK brings length to defense. The guards and wings are also big for their positions. UK has depth, quickness and, maybe most importantly, a will to defend.
“They’re sound,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “They’ve gotten to the point they’re connected on defense. They play with energy. They have depth, so the guys should not get tired.”
When asked if Calipari’s worst-defense comment was meant not to be taken literally but to inspire more effort, Barbee said, “Oh, no. It was 100-percent true. We were bad.”
Barbee tied the turnaround to the semester break. More practice time. More teaching through video study. This poor-to-stout pattern should be familiar, Barbee said.
“You see guys grow and improve rapidly during that period,” he said of the semester break. “And that’s what happened this year.”
In any discussion of Kentucky’s defense, Calipari and his assistants have usually mention point guard Ashton Hagans as a leading figure.
Fraschilla agreed, calling Hagans “maybe the best in the country on the ball. Certainly, if he’s not the best, he’s in that top tier.”
In speaking with the media Friday, Hagans said he brought an intensity on defense that was born from physical matchups in childhood with older brother Byron.
“He’s bullying you, so you’ve got to take the bully out on somebody,” he said. “So I just try to go out there and be aggressive on the defensive end, and try to do what I do best.
But regarding Kentucky’s improved defense, Hagans did not hog the spotlight.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just me,” he said. “I think everybody is trying to get better on the defensive end.”
Hagans cited the “big strides” made by Tyler Herro on defense, and how Keldon Johnson was getting “way better” as a defender.
Fraschilla suggested that Kentucky lacks an elite shot blocker/intimidator like former UK big men Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns or Nerlens Noel.
But Barbee said that EJ Montgomery and Richards are improving as shot blockers. PJ Washington can challenge shots. And Reid Travis can use his “barrel chest” to make shots around the rim more challenging for opponents.
“We do have a significant amount of rim protection in the paint,” Barbee said.
Mississippi State has a multi-faceted offense that includes experienced guards (Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Nick Weatherspoon) and blossoming freshman Reggie Perry around the basket. In a loss to LSU on Wednesday, Perry scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. It was his third double-double in the last four games.
Kentucky counters with players who say they have fun playing defense.
“I just like blocking people’s shots,” Richards said. “That’s the fun part of defense for me.”
Added Hagans: “I just love playing defense and getting into somebody’s body. Being aggressive.”
No. 5 Kentucky at Mississippi State
When: 1 p.m.
Records: UK (19-3, 8-1 SEC); Mississippi State (16-6, 4-5 SEC)
Series: UK leads 96-20
Last meeting: UK won 76-55 on Jan. 22 in Lexington
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1