Back in the early days when Matthew Mitchell put in a full-court pressing, half-court trapping defense at Kentucky, it was out of necessity.
The Cats were undersized and didn’t shoot the ball particularly well. They needed the 20-plus points off turnovers that inevitably came from the “40 minutes of dread” style defense.
After a few years away, that defensive style is back in full force for No. 19 Kentucky, which is third nationally in turnovers forced per game (26.9).
But there has been a new development this season to go with all of those points off turnovers: Kentucky can shoot the ball well, especially from long range.
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“We’ve worked hard on shooting,” Mitchell said of UK, which is hitting 40 percent from three-point range so far this season.
“We’ve gotten together as a staff before the season, and you’re trying to build the team and we’ve made a commitment to try and make sure that we spend a lot of time in practice shooting. We thought it was going to be important.”
It has been especially important for the unbeaten Cats, who are missing a true post presence this season and are trying to make up for it with a group of eight players that can play almost every position on the floor.
“It has been very exciting and pleasing to see some three-point shots and us shooting that well, and the people that are taking them are good shooters right now,” Mitchell said.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to just pound the ball into the low block 25 times a game and make 60 percent of those, I think we’re going to have to shoot the ball.”
The Cats, who will face fifth-ranked Louisville (9-0) at the KFC Yum Center on Sunday, are tops in the Southeastern Conference and No. 14 nationally in three-point shooting.
Their 76 made three-pointers is six more than the next best team in the league so far.
Both true freshman Rhyne Howard and junior reserve Jaida Roper are top five in the SEC in three-point percentage and senior Maci Morris is No. 12.
“I’m really impressed with them,” said Louisville Coach Jeff Walz, whose team also shoots the ball well from outside, hitting 40.5 percent from long range this season, good enough for No. 12 nationally. “I think Matthew has really done a great job. ... Their guard play is very, very strong. That’s the one part I’ve really been impressed with.”
Kentucky has averaged 8.4 three-pointers per game this season. If that average holds, UK will hit more than 252 from beyond the arc, which would break the school record for most in a season (240).
The Cats’ best three-point shooting season in school history was last year’s 36.8 percent.
Howard already has made 25 three-pointers, including tying a school record with seven in one game. The freshman swing player who leads the Cats (9-0) in scoring is hitting 50 percent from long range.
Morris, one of the nation’s best three-point shooters last season, has made 27 threes already this year and is hitting 41.5 percent from outside.
And UK believes it has other weapons waiting to be uncorked including senior Taylor Murray and freshman Blair Green. Green has made just three of her 13 attempts from there so far this season.
Mitchell is just happy that UK isn’t forcing outside shots, that they’re coming within the comfortable flow of the offense.
“For the most part, the offense is doing what it needs to do,” the head coach said. “It’s breaking the defense down and people are helping in. For the most part, it is really good looks, it’s not a lot of forced ones.”
No. 19 Kentucky at No. 5 Louisville
When: 2 p.m.
Records: UK 9-0; Louisville 9-0
Series: UK leads 34-20
Last meeting: Louisville won 87-63 on Dec. 17, 2017