In each of John Calipari’s first four years at Kentucky, his defenses have been outside the top 200 in forcing turnovers. Calipari generally produces very good defenses built on fantastic shot defense without fouling. It seems pretty likely that his teams could force turnovers. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Anthony Davis, and company certainly didn’t lack athleticism. However, Calipari teams also have had great length inside. Instead of gambling for steals, a vintage Calipari defense forces you to make extremely difficult shots.
This season, 7-2 Kentucky ranks third in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency but just 51st in the country in defense. The ability to force bad shots is still there. However, not only is UK not forcing turnovers, but they are also struggling to keep opponents off the offensive glass. In other words, Kentucky is allowing opponents far too many whacks at the pinata.
Baylor exposed Kentucky’s pick and roll defense on Friday at AT&T Stadium. The Wildcats didn’t defend with any sense of urgency, leading to an array of Kenny Cherry two-point jumpers and Cory Jefferson dunks. Forcing ball handlers into long twos isn’t the worst thing in the world, but Kentucky’s poor rotations are a cause for concern. With the Harrison twins struggling to get around screens and Randle struggling to rotate properly, Baylor consistently drew Cauley-Stein away from the basket with ball screens.
Through nine games, UK opponents have a TO% of 16.5% and an OR% of 32.8%. From 2009-2013, I identified 605 games where a defense allowed TO% and OR% within one percent of Kentucky’s season averages. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to win that way:
Kentucky is going to win a lot of games this season. In the 605 games above, those teams didn’t have Randle’s offense or Cauley-Stein’s rim protection. Still, Kentucky’s margin for error is very small with their current defensive TO% and OR%. We probably shouldn’t expect Calipari to switch to a more aggressive defense, but there’s absolutely no way the tallest team (average height) in the country should be 210th in defensive rebounding (they are first in offensive rebounding).
Other Good Teams with Struggling Defenses:
Gonzaga (#1 O, #94 D)
Mark Few is another coach with defenses that don’t go for steals. The problem with the Zags is they haven’t been particularly good at anything on the defensive side of the ball. With a front line (Dower and Karnowski) consisting of 166 inches and 560 pounds of size, Gonzaga must begin to defend inside the arc better.
Creighton (#7 O, #74 D)
Greg McDermott’s Northern Iowa, Iowa State, and Creighton squads also have never gone for steals. Starting to see a trend here? However, the Blue Jays have kept opponents off the boards and done a pretty good job of adjusting to the new foul rules. This end of the court will likely determine the Big East championship.
Duke (#4 O, #100 D)
Nine games in Duke doesn’t have a defensive style. They are mediocre in each of the four factors. The Vermont game still makes no sense, but Coach K has increased the defensive pressure against quality opponents in the three games since.
Oregon (#5 O, #90 D)
Combine the offense from 2012-13 Oregon and the defense from 2013-14 Oregon and you have a national title contender. This season, Oregon has been giving up plenty of threes (just ask Marshall Henderson). They also lost the best defensive rebounder and one of the most versatile defenders in the country in Arsalan Kazemi.
Iowa (#9 O, #43 D)
Fran McCaffery’s squad started with seven straight games of holding opponent’s to under 1 point per possession. Since then, the Hawkeyes have struggled (to varying degrees) against Villanova, Notre Dame, and Drake. McCaffery defenses are great at not fouling and this team is extremely long and pretty aggressive. If 43 was the over/under for the end of season defensive efficiency rank for Iowa, I would be willing to take the under.