As the non-conference portion of this season was playing itself out, there were concerns in Lexington, Ky. Coach John Calipari’s team was blown out to start the year by Duke and had a few other concerning performances. With the way Coach Calipari runs his program, the constant recycling of the roster can lead to some shaky starts as everyone gets to know how exactly how they need to play together. Talent is never the issue for the Kentucky Wildcats, but a lack of cohesiveness can often hold young teams back. This team has found its cohesion, especially on defense, and is streaking through SEC play.
Kentucky Wildcats Are Dominating on Defensive End
Rebuilding a roster every year with mostly freshman has been Calipari’s task almost every season in Lexington. His teams always take time to gel but they have improved throughout the season during his tenure. Defense is usually what needs the most work, as the Wildcats are never short of offensive talent. It can be difficult to get young players, regardless of talent level, to buy into the effort and focus it takes to be great defensively. This season’s Wildcats have fully bought in and are suffocating opponents.
Before SEC play began, the Wildcats were in the mid-40s in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. They lost on the road at Alabama in the conference opener and then struggled defensively in a home win over Texas A&M. In the eight wins since then, they have allowed over 55 points just twice. Their stingy defense over the last few weeks has seen them jump to seventh in the KenPom rankings. This team is long, athletic and best of all, relentless on the defensive end. Their activity creates havoc for opponents trying to run their offense.
The Wildcats have an abundance of length and athleticism to throw at opponents. Calipari plays nine guys double-digit minutes a night. The depth allows them to be aggressive on every possession. They can combat both fatigue and foul trouble with the amount of quality on their bench. The Wildcats average seven steals and five blocks a game. Reserve big men, Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery, both provide over a block a contest. The versatility of their post rotation means they can defend in multiple ways. Calipari’s team is third in the country in rebounding rate. Not only do they keep opponents off the offensive glass, but rebounding their own misses keeps opponents from scoring in transition.
Point of Attack
Like most of the recent young Wildcats, this team continues to improve as the season progresses. Their defensive surge has come in large part to the emergence of freshman point guard Ashton Hagans. The Cartersville, GA native spearheads the defense. His ball pressure and harassment of opposing guards can ruin their plans on offense. It also allows his teammates to take risks in the passing lane, using their athletic ability to challenge every pass and shot. Hagans is averaging nearly two and a half steals a night. This team forces 15 turnovers a game and with their offensive talent, most of those end up in dunks for Big Blue Nation.
Climbing Back Up
This team is now tied for second in the SEC at 8-1, and 19-3 overall. After losing the conference opener, they fell to #18 in the rankings, but a nine-game winning streak has them all the way back up in the top five. The Wildcats have become dominant on the defensive end, making them one of the scariest teams in the country moving forward. The SEC is a tough league and Calipari’s team is about to face its hardest stretch in league play. They travel to Mississippi State before a two-game homestand against LSU and Tennessee. The Tigers are tied with Kentucky for second in the SEC, while the Volunteers are the number one team in the country. If the Wildcats can maintain their current efficiency on the defensive end, they will have a chance in every game they have remaining.