UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Kentucky's impenetrable defense flirting with history

Alex Poythress relished a stop against Texas on Dec. 5. The Longhorns were held below 30 percent shooting.
Alex Poythress relished a stop against Texas on Dec. 5. The Longhorns were held below 30 percent shooting. Herald-Leader

After eight games, all double-digit victories, it's almost accepted night in and night out this Kentucky basketball team will play a great defensive game.

This is getting ridiculous, however.

A few news conferences back, John Calipari let it slip, almost as an afterthought, that this UK team could be a "defensive team for the ages" and he wasn't kidding.

Here come the numbers.

When Texas shot 29.8 percent from the floor in the Longhorns' 63-51 loss to the Cats on Friday night in Rupp Arena, it marked the fifth time in eight games that UK has held its opponent under 30 percent shooting.

Two of those victims were ranked in the top 10 at the time. Kansas was No. 5 in the AP poll when it shot 19.6 percent in that 72-40 thumping at the hands of Calipari's Cats in the Champions Classic at Indianapolis. Rick Barnes' Texas team was ranked No. 6 when it missed the 30 percent mark Friday.

Texas was the fourth straight UK opponent to shoot below 30 percent. Montana State shot 19.7 percent. UT-Arlington shot 27 percent. Providence shot 28.2. And Texas shot 29.8 percent.

Consider this: Last year's Kentucky team, the one that reached the NCAA Tournament championship game before losing to Connecticut, held one team under 30 percent all season. Just one. That was Robert Morris, which shot 23.2 percent in Rupp Arena way back on Nov. 17, 2013.

Wait, there's more.

Basketball stat geeks love to go by average points per possession. The holy grail is 1.0, or one point per each possession. Go above that number and your team has a chance to win. Fall below that number and winning becomes difficult.

Against this Kentucky basketball team, the holy grail is 0.8. Of the Cats' eight opponents, only Boston at 0.884 has managed to top the 0.8 mark. The other seven have fallen below that number, often well below. UT-Arlington averaged 0.636. Poor overmatched Montana State averaged 0.400.

Little wonder then that, through Friday night's games, advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy ranked Kentucky as the most efficient defensive team in the country. Pomeroy adjusts his numbers for the degree of competition. With that, he gives UK's defensive efficiency a 0.831. Louisville is second at 0.836.

Why is Kentucky so remarkable defensively? Size is an obvious factor. The Cats are tall and long and athletic. Scoring around the rim is no easy proposition.

The Cats have blocked 69 shots, an average of 8.6 per game. Through last Sunday's games — the NCAA updates its stats once a week — Kentucky trailed only UNLV (9.1) in that category.

Calipari has had big, shot-blocking teams before, however. The change this year is steals. To most everyone's surprise, Texas outrebounded Kentucky 42-31 on Friday night. Where UK made up the difference was in turnovers. Kentucky turned the ball over just eight times. Texas, playing without injured point guard Isaiah Taylor, turned it over 22 times.

Yes, Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein scored 21 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots. The story of the game was Cauley-Stein's game-high five steals.

"He affected the game every way you can affect it," Barnes said.

Last year, Kentucky averaged 4.7 steals per game. This year, UK has 70 steals through eight games, an average of 8.75. You have to go all the way back to the 1996-97 national runner-up team, which averaged 12 steals, to find a Kentucky club with stickier fingers.

Bottom line, through eight games, Kentucky is giving up just 45.4 points per game. It's a long season and that number will surely rise, but you have to flip through the record book to find a historic comparison.

The last Kentucky basketball team to hold opponents to an average of less than 50 points was in 1948-49 when Adolph Rupp's club allowed 45 per game. That's the meaning of "for the ages."

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