UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky women trying zone to solve defensive woes

Bernisha Pinkett (10) and Samarie Walker pressured Florida's Jaterra Bonds in a 83-73 Wildcat loss. UK's signature defense has taken a step back this year, in part due to a new NCAA rule emphasis.
Bernisha Pinkett (10) and Samarie Walker pressured Florida's Jaterra Bonds in a 83-73 Wildcat loss. UK's signature defense has taken a step back this year, in part due to a new NCAA rule emphasis. Herald-Leader

Kentucky played nearly a full half of zone defense in its win at Auburn on Sunday.

That's about 16 more minutes of zone defense than the Cats have played in the past four seasons combined.

Matthew Mitchell, who put in his "40 minutes of dread" style of antagonistic, man-to-man defense in 2009, is not necessarily happy about ninth-ranked UK falling into the zone.

The coach, who has said many times that he went to that style of play out of necessity when Kentucky wasn't blessed with much size inside, may now have to get away from it out of necessity.

He's a man perplexed.

"It's a bit of a conundrum for me right now," Mitchell said on Wednesday as UK prepared for a rematch with Alabama (8-10, 1-4 Southeastern Conference).

"I'm trying to figure that out, but we'll get it figured out," he continued. "One way or the other we're going to find a way to stop people."

The NCAA's new points of emphasis to create less bumping and fewer hand checks has neutered the Cats' defense, which is forcing fewer turnovers a game, and allowing opponents to average 16.6 more points a game than last season.

That's roughly 11 points more than the national average in increased point production this season, according to an NCAA statistical analysis released this week.

"It's something we definitely think about because we constantly hear about it all the time: no touching, no touching," sophomore Janee Thompson said of the new rules emphasis.

The point guard missed much of the first half at Auburn, where UK trailed by as many as 13 points early, with foul trouble.

"It's just so different than how it was in the previous years," Thompson said. "Sometimes we have the tendency to be less aggressive on defense because we're worried about fouling and then we don't play the type of defense we can play."

The new rules have benefited Kentucky (15-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) in many ways, including UK averaging 10.5 more points a game and getting to the free-throw line more often.

But they've also thawed some of the heat UK's defense was bringing on opponents, who are averaging 2.4 fewer turnovers a game than they were at this point last season.

Figuring out a legal guarding position and how officials are calling contact initiated by the offensive player has been problematic, Mitchell said Wednesday.

"That's really what is giving us so much trouble," he said. "Just trying to figure out what's legal and what's not."

When UK moved to the 2-3 zone against Auburn — something it usually only does for a possession or two to ice a hot offense — Mitchell saw his defense look more alive.

So he stuck with it.

"We were much more active and aggressive in the zone and played with the kind of energy that I wish we would play in man-to-man," he said.

But the head coach refuses to believe that it's the new point of emphasis that has taken the dread out of his team's defense, which he admitted "hasn't been all that great" this season.

UK's defense has still held all but one team (Duke) to less than 50 percent shooting this season. The Cats still lead the SEC in steals with 12.3 a game and are still sixth in the country and second in the conference in turnover margin at plus-8.

Mitchell wants more. He knows the Kentucky defense is still in there somewhere, he's just waiting for it to assert itself again.

"We could play a lot better, a lot harder," he said of his team, which is averaging a little more than three extra fouls a game, right on par with the national numbers.

Until that 40 minutes of hand-to-hand combat makes its way back onto the court, Kentucky is going to have to find other ways to stop opponents, who are shooting 2.9 percent better at this point in the season compared to last.

(The national average has been a 1.5 percent shooting increase.)

"We have some good defensive fundamentals," he said. "If it has to be a little bit more multiple right now, I think we have the team that can make that adjustment.

"We're working on that (zone defense) more now, so it may become a big part of what we do. I just don't know."