UK Men's Basketball

UK asks Herro, Johnson to evolve from ‘conscientious objectors’ to solid defenders

Before Saturday, would anyone have called Tyler Herro a defensive stopper?

Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro talks about the defensive job he did guarding Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, college basketball’s all-time leading three-pointer shooter. UK defeated Wofford 62-56 in an NCAA Tournament game on March 23, 2019.
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Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro talks about the defensive job he did guarding Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, college basketball’s all-time leading three-pointer shooter. UK defeated Wofford 62-56 in an NCAA Tournament game on March 23, 2019.

Roommates Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson came to Kentucky as highly regarded recruits. Their debuts in the August exhibition games in the Bahamas put visions of shots swishing through baskets dancing in the collective mind of the Big Blue Nation.

Defense was, at best, an afterthought.

ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said this fits the profile of the typical high school star. Scoring is the priority. Their teams rely on them making shots.

“Most high school stars are conscientious objectors on the defensive end,” Fraschilla said. “Often times, the coach can’t afford to have the top player in foul trouble. So they have to be a little more passive.

“But once you get to college, everybody’s been a high school star.”

Defense becomes an important component of a player’s game.

That figures to be the case when Kentucky plays Houston on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region semifinals. Houston’s backcourt includes senior guard Corey Davis Jr., who was named to the All-American Athletic Conference First Team. Junior guard Armoni Brooks made the Second Team. Nate Hinton made the All-Freshman Team.

Yet another Houston guard, sophomore DeJon Jarreau, was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year.

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Kentucky’s Tyler Herro (14) and Keldon Johnson (3) will be counted on to score but also to dig deep defensively against a balanced Houston team on Friday night. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

In Kentucky’s second-round victory over Wofford in the NCAA Tournament last weekend, Herro drew kudos as the primary defender on Wofford star Fletcher Magee. Two nights earlier, Magee set a Division I record for career three-pointers. Against Kentucky, he made none of his 12 three-point shots.

Heretofore viewed as a shooter with textbook form on a pull-up jumper, Herro became a defensive stopper.

“I think the world is starting to take notice that Tyler can really guard, too,” teammate Immanuel Quickley said.

After the game, Herro tried to temper the perception that he shut down Magee.

“I don’t know if I shut him down,” he said. “He just missed shots. All great shooters are going to have bad nights.”

Fraschilla suggested Kentucky’s game plan helped Herro contain Magee.

“I don’t want to discount the great job he did,” Fraschilla said, “but he had an easy assignment in some ways.”

By this, Fraschilla said he meant UK Coach John Calipari had Herro concentrate solely on containing Magee. Herro did not have the usual level of concern about team defense and helping teammates.

“It’s almost like a shut-down corner in football,” Fraschilla said. “He’s not worried about all the schemes. His assignment is to not let the wide receiver catch it.”

On his radio show Monday, Calipari said he received a call from an NBA coach who was impressed with Herro’s defensive effort against Wofford.

“Because he gave up his offense to guard the other team’s best player,” Calipari said before adding a moment later, “The greatest thing was Tyler was good with it. ‘I got him. Let me guard him.’ Knowing that Tyler was going to wear down and it was going to be harder for him to make shots.”

Kentucky basketball’s Jemarl Baker talks to the media about playing a key role off the bench in UK’s 62-56 win over Wofford in a second round game of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2019. The Wildcats lay next week in Kansas City.

Herro made two of 11 shots (one of six from three-point range) against Wofford. After the game, he acknowledged that the attention to defense affected his offense.

On the day before Kentucky played Wofford, associate coach Kenny Payne wanted to see Johnson improve as a defender.

“We recruited him to guard ‘two’ through ‘five,’” Payne said, meaning to defend the opposition’s shooting guard or small forward or power forward or even center. “On offense, play ‘two’ through ‘four.’ He can do it.”

For over 70 years, Kentucky basketball fans have shown their passion for the Blue and White during NCAA Tournament time - and sometimes created a little chaos along the way.

While saluting the improvement Johnson has made throughout the season, Payne added, “I’d like for him to tighten up the defensive end of the floor.”

Payne echoed Calipari’s observation that Johnson had defensive lapses in UK’s first-round victory over Abilene Christian.

When asked if Johnson can let reversals in fortune on offense affect his defense, Payne said, “He definitely gets caught up in offense. And he lets his emotions live and die off of what he does offensively.

“We’re not worried about offense. We need him to be a great defender.”

Payne said that Johnson has the attributes to be a great defender. Athleticism. Quickness. Light on his feet.

“He just has to anticipate a little better,” Payne said.

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Fraschilla said that both Herro and Johnson can improve their NBA profiles by playing good defense.

“Guys like Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson certainly have the physical attributes to become very good defenders,” the ESPN analyst said. He defined those attributes as athleticism, desire, competitiveness and basketball IQ.

“In fact, Keldon’s chances of playing in the NBA, in part, are based on the fact he has the size and length to someday be a good wing defender in the NBA,” Fraschilla said. “What Tyler is doing right now is only adding to his future NBA resume.”

Friday

No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 3 seed Houston

What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinal

Where: Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

When: About 10 p.m. EDT

TV: TBS

Records: Kentucky 29-6, Houston 33-3

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