CRAWFORD | Kentucky defense ready for challenge of Notre Dame offense
The University of Kentucky basketball team will take its top-rated defense against Notre Dame's highly rated offense when the two meet Saturday night in the NCAA Elite Eight.
CLEVELAND (WDRB) — What's the best way through the University of Kentucky defense? For most teams it's too tall to shoot over and too long to go around.
Maybe the best way to attack it is to call a cab.
If there's any team in the nation that would appear capable of taking a decent shot at the Wildcats' historically good defense (ranked No. 1 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency statistics), it would seem to be Notre Dame, which has the No. 3 rated offense in Pomeroy's index (Wisconsin is No. 1, Duke is No. 2).
“We're the most efficient offensive team in the country,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Friday. “They're the best defensive team in the country. I think it's exciting to see how this thing plays out over 40 minutes.”
UK wasn't always a defensive juggernaut. There were some gaps in their play, a few weaknesses early in the season. But as they have closed the door on those, the Wildcats' defense has become suffocating.
In its Sweet 16 round loss to Kentucky, West Virginia not only couldn't score 40 points, it simply couldn't get good shots.
UK freshman Karl-Anthony Towns said the Wildcats' defense has improved as the players have gotten to know the games of their teammates better.
“I think the big thing for us defensively is the timing,” Towns said. “We've been able to block more shots, get to spots better, pick-and-roll defense has been tremendously upgraded since the beginning of the season, movement, talking, and just being able to use our length better. We've been able to utilize our height much more effectively now, during this part of the season, than we were early in the season. And I think all that just contributes to our success.”
Instead of being a tall team that plays like an average-sized team, UK now is a tall team that plays like a tall team, and utilizes that size to its advantage. Guards are adept at forcing ball-handlers to drive into the UK shot blockers, and slowing them just enough to allow the defenders to get in spots for the block.
Expect that to figure prominently in Saturday's 8:45 p.m. matchup. I asked freshman point guard Tyler Ulis what he thought the defensive game plan would be, and he said, “Just run them off the (three-point) line and force them into our shot blockers.”
Towns said whatever Notre Dame throws at the Wildcats offensively, he expects the defense to adjust to.
“We have a better feel for each other, and we know what to expect from each other,” Towns said. “Pick-and-roll defense, just taking more steps and being able to be in better spots to help, and just getting more used to the defensive aspects of the game. Our IQ has gotten a lot better during the season as we've learned each other's traits and what we're able and not able to do.”
Towns said the sense of pride UK players take in their defense is the main unifying element of this team.
“Cal coming into a game, he's not a tricky dude. He's not going to try to trick you,” Cauley-Stein said. “And it's a pride effect too. We play man. Some people said we should've played zone against West Virginia. We stayed man the whole time. That's just pride, pride in us. Knowing that you're going to look across and know that you're going to play that guy, and if he beats you, you'll know that he beat you. And he's going to take you out and another guy is going to come in and play against him. That fight, that's what (Calipari) likes to see in you.”
Is UK fired up defensively to face the best offensive team it has seen all season?
“It's going to bring that competitiveness out,” Cauley-Stein said. “But it also makes you cautious, like, they've got the reputation of being a really good offensive team, but we've got the reputation of being a really good defensive team. But I think people sleep on our offense, so it's just one of those things, you'll know when the ball gets thrown up whether you think you can play the guy or not.”
And that may be as big a key as Notre Dame's offense. Kentucky's offense is no slouch. The Wildcats rank No. 6 in the nation in Pomeroy's efficiency numbers. They are the fourth-highest rated team offensively left in the field, (behind Wisconsin, Duke and Gonzaga). They can score themselves.
Brey doesn't like double-teaming in the post. In his view, Notre Dame is willing to give up some two-point baskets because it is capable of outscoring teams from three. It just doesn't want to give up the open looks from three. Likewise, Brey knows his team is going to give up some offensive rebounds.
“Because we're smaller, we absorbed 21 offensive rebounds in Chapel Hill in early January. We escaped. We absorbed 17 offensive rebounds against Michigan State. We escaped,” Brey said. “I think we're going to give up some, but we've been able to withstand that because of our offensive efficiency. I think our defense is one of the things that is overlooked, we're much better. You don't get to this point without being able to guard.”
Notre Dame has beaten Duke. It has beaten North Carolina. But neither of those teams presents the kind of physical challenges Kentucky presents. Nor do they feature the kind of length on the perimeter that can make three-point shooting hazardous. In the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky's opponents are 8-for-45 from three-point range.
I tried to get Towns and some of the others to talk about offense on Friday. He wasn't having it.
“Our offense translates to our defense,” Towns said. “If we start out defensively strong, our offense will pick up the pieces.”
Pick up the pieces. That's an ominous metaphor for the Irish.
“We know how great Notre Dame is,” Towns said. “They're a great offensive team. We just need to go out there and do what we need to do defensively. It's just going to come down to how we play energy-wise and how we play defensively.”
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