UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky women not worried new rules will declaw defense

Janee Thompson, center, was sandwiched by Bria Goss, left, and Jennifer O'Neill during Big Blue Madness. Kentucky's defense, oft-noted for its aggressiveness, is featured in a video prepping teams for NCAA rule changes.
Janee Thompson, center, was sandwiched by Bria Goss, left, and Jennifer O'Neill during Big Blue Madness. Kentucky's defense, oft-noted for its aggressiveness, is featured in a video prepping teams for NCAA rule changes. Herald-Leader

Kentucky has made a name for itself with defense.

It's gotten to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight three of the past four seasons behind what opposing coaches and commentators often call an "aggressive" and "disruptive" defensive style.

So it's easy to wonder what might happen to that defense now that the NCAA has handed down new rules to try to make the games higher scoring and less physical.

The NCAA is calling for officials to pay closer attention to a couple of key things: keeping a defenders' hand and forearm from resting on her opponent and keeping defenders from using two hands on an opponent.

And even though his seventh-ranked Cats — who open exhibition play versus Eckerd College on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum — are featured prominently in an NCAA primer video on the topic, UK's Matthew Mitchell said he doesn't think it will change much for his team.

"A lot of people have said, 'Kentucky can't play that way, the rules are going to take them out. They can't play up-tempo. They can't play aggressive,'" Mitchell said. "We reject that notion."

In fact, he said UK is "more equipped to play defense than anybody. That's just the confidence we have in our fundamentals and how hard we've worked."

But it doesn't mean Mitchell isn't emphasizing the rules in practice.

After all, the Cats had the third-most fouls (17.97 per game) called on them in the Southeastern Conference, just behind Mississippi State (19.46) and Alabama (18.29). All three teams have reputations for aggressive defenses.

"If you touch someone with two hands or touch someone twice, we make sure we bring it to their attention so that is part of practice and just get it in the players' minds," Mitchell said.

At Friday morning's practice, the UK coach asked longtime officials Lisa Mattingly and Gina Cross to observe and make sure what the staff is teaching is matching up with what the officials are looking at.

Cross and Mattingly stayed after practice and discussed the rules changes with the players, answering questions and demonstrating some new defensive no-nos.

"(Mitchell) wants us to pay attention to it," said UK point guard Jennifer O'Neill, who was tied with Samarie Walker for second-most fouls called on them last season with 78. Star forward DeNesha Stallworth had the most for the Cats with 90. "We are a physical team, we're very aggressive, but he let us know the rule is going to be enforced now."

The rules adjustments are supposed to give offensive players more freedom to move, which coaches are hopeful will lead to more scoring.

Something had to change. Women's basketball teams combined to shoot 39 percent from the field and averaged a record-low 62.1 points a game.

In the first season of NCAA women's basketball in 1981-82, teams combined to average nearly eight points more a game.

Kentucky's Mitchell said he's happy to see any rules changes that could help women's basketball become more exciting for fans.

"If this is a way to improve the game, that's great," he said, noting people are going to also have to play less physically against his team.

"If people think the game will be better 85-75 instead of 65-55, I don't have any problem with that as long as we're the ones scoring 85."

Just down the road, Louisville Coach Jeff Walz, whose team also had its share of face time in that NCAA training video, argued that coaches are going to have to make some kind of adjustment to avoid having players foul out.

"You can expect everyone to play more zone this year," Walz told The Associated Press. "You're going to need at least two zones, or you're going to have no players left."

Kentucky's players and coach seemed to reject that notion, too. It would be quite a change for the Cats, who have played almost no zone defense in the last five seasons.

"We're just working harder and being more disciplined to avoid those fouls," guard Bria Goss said. "Teams will be like, 'Oh, Kentucky will have to back up this year and go into a zone.' Umm, no. We're just going to have to play our game."

As he's apt to do, Mitchell is trying to stay optimistic about the adjustments.

"It's going to overall be a real net positive for the game and for Kentucky," Mitchell said. "We will continue to play very tough, tenacious, aggressive defense. I don't think we will be impacted negatively and I don't think the game will."


Exhibition: Eckerd at Kentucky

When: 1 p.m.

Where: Memorial Coliseum

Radio: WLAP-AM 630