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Brian Mull | | December 4, 2015

College basketball: Improving its interior defense is critical for Kentucky

  John Calipari's Wildcats lost its first game of the season to UCLA on Thursday night.

Top-ranked Kentucky’s interior defense was exposed Thursday night in a 10-point loss to UCLA.

Protecting the rim projected as a question mark for the Wildcats this season after the departure of 7-footers Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft, and Willie Cauley-Stein, the No. 6 pick. The Wildcats’ twin towers had the two highest individual defensive ratings in college basketball last season, anchoring a unit that allowed 0.84 points per possession - the second-best defensive team in statistician Ken Pomeroy’s database dating back to the 2001-02 season.

Also, Cauley-Stein led the nation in defensive win shares, producing 3.4 wins more than the average D1 center while Towns was 10th in that category. Their presence in the paint erased defensive mistakes made outside and helped the Wildcats remain unbeaten until the Final Four.

Freshman Skal Labissiere (6-11) and veteran forwards Marcus Lee (6-9) and Alex Poythress (6-8) have received most of the minutes in coach John Calipari’s frontcourt this season. 7-foot freshman Isaac Humphries has appeared in five games and played a season-high 27 minutes in the loss to UCLA, filling in for Lee who injured his head early in the game.

But this group hasn’t defended as well as last year’s Wildcats. Where Towns and Cauley-Stein each allowed a remarkable 0.80 points per possession or less, all of the current Kentucky big men allow 0.91 or more. Kentucky is blocking 13 percent of opponent’s shots, compared to 18.2 percent last season.

In Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins outmuscled the Wildcats inside and shredded their defense for 1.24 points per possession to avenge an embarrassing loss a year ago. They scored 30 points in the paint and became the the third Wildcats opponent in eight games to make at least half of their 2-point shots (54.8 percent).

After leading the nation in 2-point field goal percentage defense last season (39.1 percent), the Wildcats are 77th this season (44.1 percent). Attacking the basket also enabled the Bruins to draw 27 fouls and 34 free throws. UCLA became the first Kentucky opponent to score 80 or more points since Ole Miss accomplished it in an overtime loss last season. It added up to disaster for Kentucky, which is certain to plummet from the No. 1 ranking when the AP top 25 is released Monday.

Perimeter players provide the scoring punch for this Kentucky team (although the Wildcats 29.8 percent 3-point shooting is 299th in the nation and the worst in the Calipari Era). But improving the interior defense is integral if the program aims to reach its fifth Final Four in six seasons. Not that the entire responsibility falls on the frontcourt.

Kentucky’s talented guards can make life easier for their taller teammates by containing dribble penetration and curbing the amount of traffic that reaches the lane. Still, the Wildcats should have ample time to address their defensive issues. In the next 10 games their lone top 70 opponent, per the Pomeroy Ratings, is in-state rival Louisville on Dec. 26th.

Kentucky returns to action Wednesday against Eastern Kentucky in Rupp Arena.

Related: Men's college basketball hub

Fans who love offense should tune in to Atlantic Coast Conference television coverage this season. The ACC has four of the top six teams in points per possession. Virginia (1.26 ppp) and Duke (1.25) are always among the most efficient offenses, while Miami (1.25) and Louisville (1.24) have been mild surprises early in the season. The Cardinals are thriving due to excellent offensive rebounding and strong play from senior transfer Damion Lee. Expect North Carolina (1.15) to watch its efficiency increase now that senior All-American Marcus Paige is back on the court.    

Please allow (us) to introduce ourselves: There were incredible individual performances across the landscape of college basketball last week. Davidson guard Jack Gibbs hit his first 13 field goals and poured in 41 points with the most famous Wildcat, Steph Curry in the house. Iona’s A.J. English nailed 13 3-pointers and scored 46 points - the most in Division I this season - in a 101-75 MAAC victory over Fairfield. The 6-4 senior also handed out eight assists. Howard’s James Daniel had 39 points in a mild upset of William & Mary. Oakland’s 5-9 guard Kahlil Felder extended his streak of 20-point games to six in matchups against Abilene Christian and Georgia.

Games to watch this weekend:


Syracuse at Georgetown, 1 p.m., FOX

The Pearl. Patrick. Boeheim & Thompson. Derrick Coleman, Alonzo Mourning. No rivalry defined the glory days of Big East basketball quite like Syracuse - Georgetown. They were consistent powers who each won a national championship and were always in contention. Things changed when Syracuse departed for the ACC prior to the 2013-14 season. There won’t be any more epic conference tournament games in Madison Square Garden, but there is this intriguing matchup all the same. Syracuse (6-1) is coming off a 65-58 overtime loss to Wisconsin. Georgetown is 3-3 with losses to Maryland and Duke.

Arizona at Gonzaga, 3:15 p.m., ESPN

Like a recent college graduate wandering the country and following a jam band, Arizona (6-1) is still trying to find itself early in this 2015-16 season. The Wildcats must seek inside answers because center Kaleb Tarczewski is out four-to-six weeks with an injured left foot. They are also looking for their lost 3-point shooting touch (28.1 percent). Gonzaga (5-1) is big and talented, led by Kyle Wiltjer (19.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg). The Zags also have potential to be coach Mark Few’s best defensive team in Spokane. They’ve held teams to 38.3 percent effective field goal percentage.    



VCU vs. Florida State, 2 p.m., Phillips Arena, Atlanta, Ga., ESPN

This shapes up as a good one between two programs that value defense, but take different routes to playing it effectively. VCU (5-2) forces opponents into turnovers on one-fourth of their possessions (10th in the nation) and has solid wins over Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee State but needs to continue building its postseason resume. Florida State (4-2) dropped an overtime game to Iowa last time out. The Seminoles shut down the lane and lock down the backboards (75.7 percent defensive rebounding rate) but have dropped their only two games against top 100 opponents.

Davidson at North Carolina, 6 p.m., ESPNU

Davidson, one of 18 remaining unbeatens in Division I, makes the two-hour drive up Interstate 85 to face the Tar Heels in what should be an entertaining matchup. Davidson averages 88.4 points per game and UNC averages 82.2. The Wildcats might have trouble inside with the taller Tar Heels, but guards Jack Gibbs and Brian Sullivan could cause problems for 6-1 UNC, which has struggled to stop talented backcourts this season. North Carolina forward Brice Johnson is hitting 81.8 percent at the free throw line. His best in his first three seasons at Chapel Hill was 67.6 percent.

Vanderbilt at Baylor, 8 p.m., ESPNU

The beginning of a brutal four-game stretch for Vanderbilt (6-1). The Commodores only loss was by seven points to Kansas in the finals in Maui and they’ll also face Dayton and Purdue in the next 18 days. Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones are a formidable inside-outside combination. Baylor (5-1) hasn’t been challenged since falling to Oregon on Nov. 16th. The Bears are one of the nation’s best at working the offensive boards (collect 42.4 percent of their missed shots). 6-9 forwards Rico Gathers and Jonathan Motley are a handful around the basket.    


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