Out of necessity, and in many ways desperation, defense became Kentucky’s thing.
When Matthew Mitchell was struggling as Cats coach after a couple of seasons, he didn’t have the talent or length to compete with some of the nation’s best, so UK went to its “40 minutes of dread” style of defense.
It became the Cats’ calling card.
It defined them, perhaps a little too much.
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“You have some success with that, so you’re sort of committed to that, and so you keep going,” Mitchell said. “So our practices were very frenetic and really all about effort and energy and tempo, and that doesn’t always lend itself to great offensive execution.”
Kentucky would get into bigger games against bigger teams that could handle UK’s pace and pressure and struggle.
And when the Cats needed to score to keep up, they couldn’t, especially in the halfcourt when opponents would move to a zone defense.
So out of necessity again, Mitchell decided to make some changes.
“I can’t be so contrarian and try to go against everybody, the Stanfords and the UConns and the Notre Dames,” he explained recently as No. 8 UK prepared to go on the road to Middle Tennessee State. “The people that have been there year in and year out shoot the ball at a really high percentage.”
Starting this summer, the primary focus for UK was on offensive execution, on shooting mechanics, on individual shooting footwork drills, on everything a team would need to score more points.
“I sort of used to have the attitude that offense is really easy and we should be able to pick up on this and run the plays well,” he continued. “And they need reps, just like they need reps in the press when we’re really good at pressing.”
So the same way that UK spent inordinate amounts of time working on the intricacies of a trapping press for the past five years, they now work on setting a screen and using a screen.
It’s paid off in a big way for the unbeaten Cats, who lead the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage at 49.4 percent (eighth in the country). They’re also tops in the league and fifth nationally in three-point shooting percentage at 41.7 percent.
“I give a lot of credit to Coach Mitchell,” junior guard Makayla Epps said of UK’s offensive transformation, which now includes 30 minutes of practice devoted entirely to offense. “He gives us a lot of reps in practice. … It’s just getting reps. I feel like the more reps we all get, the better we’re going to be.”
Behind Epps and senior guard Janee Thompson, who are No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference in assists, UK leads the league and is ninth nationally in assists at 19.5 a game.
Kentucky’s numbers this season are better than they’ve ever been under Mitchell.
The field goal shooting is six percentage points higher than his previous best team (43.4 in 2013-14). The three-point shooting now is nearly eight percentage points higher than UK’s previous best under him.
The Cats are dishing out 5.3 more assists per game than they have any of the previous eight seasons.
“You can start to see little pieces of it coming together,” said Mitchell, whose team is No. 10 in the country in scoring offense at 84.4 points a game. “And I think it’s because of the repetition and the time that we’re spending.”
It’s been a strange change of pace for him as a coach, Mitchell admitted. And he sometimes worries that all of the focus on offensive execution will hurt UK’s defensive pressure.
Not so far. Kentucky is holding opponents to 32.3 percent shooting, second best in the SEC and among the nation’s top 25 in that category.
“I just like to go, go, go and play real hard and play harder than the other team,” he said of his old way of thinking, but noted it’s been just as fun seeing the players “develop because of our approach in teaching and how we’re doing that.”
In just eight games, five different players have led the Cats in scoring.
It’s not just work in practice or individual workouts, but players are excited to work in their off time, too.
“The one thing I’ve noticed that we’re doing differently is the amount of work that we’re putting in outside of practice,” Thompson said. “We work really hard on honing our individual skills and it’s showing up in the game with the way we’ve been able to shoot the ball and the way we’ve been able to finish.”
No. 8 Kentucky at Middle Tennessee
When: 3 p.m.
Records: UK 8-0; MTSU 4-3
Series: UK leads 13-5
Last meeting: UK won 78-62 in Memorial Coliseum last season
Radio: WLXG-AM 630
UK’s scoring statistics