Kentucky‘s defense has been a disaster as of late, specifically rearing its ugly head in the second half vs. Arkansas, a 20-minute stretch where the Wildcats allowed the Razorbacks to shoot 72.0% from the field and score 47 points with just one 3-pointer. UK got cooked in the pick-and-roll, beat off the dribble and caught sleeping on backdoor cuts, resulting in a clinic for the opposition around the basket for the game — Arkansas scored 46 total points in the paint with 11 made layups and eight dunks overall.
Coming out of the 88-73 loss inside of Rupp Arena to move the Wildcats to 16-8 overall and 7-4 in the SEC, Kentucky now has the No. 88 defense in college basketball, per KenPom.com, allowing 48.5% shooting from the field (No. 115) and 33.3% from three (No. 140). Against quality competition (top-50 foes) UK sits firmly at No. 118 in defensive efficiency, per BartTorvik.com.
“They shot 72 percent in the second half. Come on,” John Calipari said following the loss. “You’re not going to win a game if they’re shooting 72 percent. We tried some zone. We did some different things. We switched. They got downhill, and just no one in there wanted to body up, which is what they did to us. But we’ll learn.”
Back that up a few sentences — “We tried some zone.”
Technically, yes. One possession in the first half, another in the second. No extended look at it, though, despite line drive after line drive to the basket for the Razorbacks.
“We did good in the zone. I feel like that’s not really our identity, we didn’t stay in it long, but I felt like we held our own when we did go zone.”
The first look at zone came on Arkansas’ second possession of the game, one that saw Kentucky force a bad shot at the end of the shot clock. The Razorbacks, though, got the offensive rebound and found a wide-open 3-pointer on the right wing for Ricky Council IV, one of the team’s four makes on the night. Calipari tossed that idea in the dumpster immediately.
Then with the Wildcats down six with eight minutes to go, Kentucky went to a stacked 2-3 zone at the top of the key, which led to an and-one finish for Council on Oscar Tshiebwe. And that was the last of that.
Arkansas would go on to score eight straight and a 14-4 run overall to push the lead to 16, the most of the game. Kentucky wouldn’t cut it to below 12 the rest of the way, with the Razorbacks leaving Lexington with an 88-73 win.
A potential answer to the Wildcats’ defensive struggles? A familiar face says Calipari would be best off going back to what he tried sparingly Tuesday evening: former Louisville head coach Chris Mack.
In an appearance on The Field of 68 After Dark following the game, Mack said Kentucky’s best bet to fix some of its defensive issues would be sticking with zone, specifically to mask some of Oscar Tshiebwe’s individual struggles. The idea would be to throw different things at the defense so they can’t settle in and pick on one individual player or flaw.
“Hedging hard would be tough for him. I think that you’re just asking him to get in foul trouble, it’s not something he’s done all year,” Mack said. “We had that issue years ago at Xavier, had the kid Matt Stainbrook and people were putting him in ball screens. And we had Jalen Reynolds. What we ended up doing was playing a lot of zone and we would mix our zone and man up.
“So it’s like, OK, (Eric) Musselman wants to come down the floor every single time and pick on Tshiebwe in a ball screen situation. Oh, shoot, he can’t on this possession because we’re in zone. Then maybe the next possession we’re in man. You can go misses, you can go makes, maybe coming out of a timeout? If you were man for the last three possessions, now you go zone for a couple of possessions. You may tell your team, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go zone for a couple of possessions until they score.’
“You’re just constantly throwing curveballs so for that coach that just wants to pick on you, he can’t really do it over and over because he’s going against a different look each and every time.”
In theory, it’d be easier to just put someone else in who can defend ball screens. But then you’re taking out college basketball’s reigning national player of the year, someone who demands constant attention on every touch. Is that really the best bet?
Mack says no. Tshiebwe is too valuable to take off the floor, but he’s also too much of a defensive liability to continue with how things are going currently. The happy medium? Zone.
“I know that’s against Cal’s MO, but I would tell you, he might have to do that because it’s not like you’re going to put Tshiebwe on the bench and say, ‘Hey, let’s keep somebody in here who can defend ball screens,'” Mack said. “Because he’s one of the best rebounders, if not the best rebounder in the country. He attracts so much attention around the low post, so I think you’ve got to just figure out a way to be better defensively because you need him on the floor.”
Mack says and does a lot of things I’ve disagreed with over the years. This isn’t one of them.