Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Kentucky (I)

WHAT THEY BRING (defensively)

The best two-point defense in the SEC…right in front of Tennessee

After a couple of years in the relative wilderness (90th and 131st in 2PT% allowed), Kentucky’s back to having the elite inside-the-arc defense they’ve had throughout Calipari’s tenure. This year’s edition ranks 13th nationally in opponent 2PT% (44%) and has a particularly potent ability to block mid-range jumpers.

Only five teams in America are blocking more two-point jumpers than Kentucky is (14.4% Block%). Unsurprisingly, the most proficient shot-blockers among the main six players are Washington and Travis, but they’re able to bring serious firepower off the bench. EJ Montgomery averages 2.7 blocks per 40 minutes, while Nick Richards (yes, that Nick Richards) averages 5.1. In general, not a team you’re looking to mess with, even at the rim.

Well-rounded on the whole, forces plenty of transition TOs, prone to a hot night from three

Now, as a note up top, Kentucky’s good-looking turnover rate (20.4%, 86th-best nationally) comes predominantly from forcing turnovers in transition. They rank 11th-best at doing that because the entire team has giant wingspans:

In half-court, though, Kentucky doesn’t force nearly as many turnovers per possession, ranking 164th-best in half-court TO rate, per Synergy. However, this comes with a cost: Kentucky’s #2 in opponent eFG% in half-court defense in the SEC. Their transition eFG%, when opponents do get up shots, ranks just 199th nationally.

So: it’s very boom or bust, but considering Tennessee ranks in the 90th-percentile in transition offense, they could at least play to a draw here.

Elsewhere, this is not the same “elite” Kentucky three-point defense from the last two years. They’re giving up an opponent hit rate of 35.4% from deep, good for 244th-best nationally. This might be because 43.3% of catch-and-shoot threes are left unguarded:

That rate ranks just 7th-best in the SEC, which isn’t ideal. Kentucky most prominently struggles to defend threes off of screens:

And off the pick-and-roll:

Tennessee has various plays that get shooters open, and I’m interested to see how Kentucky combats them. Essentially everyone is used to Jordan Bowden or Lamonte Turner making a hard cut off of a screen now. How about a Kyle Alexander or Grant Williams pick-and-pop to mix it up?

Key to rim efficiency: cuts and rolls

On face value, Chuma Okeke’s night against Kentucky looks like he was held in check: 11 points on 11 shots, just 6 rebounds, and a 1-of-5 outing from three. However, this would ignore the fact that Okeke made more shots at the rim than anyone else on Auburn: 4 of 5, including a quality cut here:

And a quality roll here, aided by an excellent pass:

For everything Kentucky is great at, they don’t defend these two play types all that well. Opponents are scoring 1.174 PPP on cut plays (this still gets Kentucky to the 64th-percentile nationally) and 0.938 PPP on rolls (35th-percentile), likely because Kentucky’s big men starters aren’t very big. Among players who utilize the cut as 15% of more of their Synergy play types, Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams rank #2 and #3 in PPP in the SEC. That’s hard enough to defend when you have one; it’s even harder when you’ve got both. Williams also ranks highly in his few Roll Man plays, so that’s worth some run.

Post-ups will be difficult; excellent in small sample size

A quick disclaimer: Kentucky’s post-up defense ranks in the 94th-percentile nationally, per Synergy. They force a lot of turnovers out of these plays and don’t allow opponents to shoot all that well, either. That said, they haven’t played a post-up-heavy team in SEC play to date. South Carolina is the only Kentucky opponent to date that uses post-ups for more than 10% of their possessions, and the last team they played that ranked in the top 40 of post-up usage nationally was Southern Illinois in November. So while this has been excellent to date:

You could just as easily argue small sample size. We’ll monitor.

Individual matchups to target

There really aren’t many. Kentucky possesses no truly bad defenders, as the metrics would tell you. However, a couple players have weak spots that Tennessee could exploit to important gains.

First up, Ashton Hagans, the starting point guard with a 26 guarded/27 unguarded split on the perimeter:

PJ Washington, who struggles to defend jump shooters (54% guarded) and had serious issues staying with LSU’s Naz Reid:

And…that’s about it. Tyler Herro can struggle some off the dribble, but he’s been much better as of late. This is a tough defense to break, folks.


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