One of the most resilient cliches heard in college basketball is that no one plays defense "anymore." Why this cliche endures so stubbornly is a mystery, because John Calipari has proven time and time again that defense is in fact alive and well. Whether at Memphis or Kentucky, Calipari's presided over some of Division I's most dominant defensive teams. In fact the coach's accomplishment is all the more impressive given that he's compiled this record while recruiting at the very highest level (McDonald's All-Americans aren't supposed to be interested in defense) and while experiencing high roster turnover on a near-yearly basis (team defense is supposed to be something that veterans achieve over time).
This ability was on full display last year in Calipari's first season at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats featured three one-and-done freshmen in their starting five (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe), and yet somehow played the kind of defense that isn't supposed to be possible "anymore." Wall was without a doubt one of the most exciting players to hit the college game in recent years, but for our current purposes the interesting thing about that Kentucky team is that, as good as they were (an NCAA tournament 1-seed that reached the Elite Eight), UK didn't even have the best offense in SEC play. That distinction belonged to Vanderbilt. The most notable feature of the Cats last year was their defense, one that was far and away the best in its conference. For Calipari this was nothing new. Every season since 2006-07 his team has had the best defense in its league by a very wide margin.
But that streak has come to an end in 2011, as the best defense in the SEC is now clearly found at Alabama. To be sure, finding fault with Kentucky's defense this year is actually a backhanded tribute to the expectations that Calipari's track record has inspired. This season a UK defense comprised of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and company is holding their conference opponents to 0.97 points per possession. Given that the SEC's overall scoring average is 1.01 points per trip, the Wildcats' defense is certainly pretty good.
The question now is what does the future hold for a Kentucky team with a pretty good defense? The Wildcats' struggles in SEC road games have been well-documented. Calipari's team is 1-5 on the road in conference play and, incredibly, those five losses have come by a total of just 17 points. This has naturally led to discussion of what this young team needs to do to win close games, but I tend to think wins and losses in close games will more or less even out over time. So I'm equally if not more interested in why these games are so close to start with.
It turns out the UK defense is helping to create all these tight road games. At home Kentucky looks very much like a Calipari defense is supposed to look. SEC opponents who have come to Lexington have averaged just 0.86 points per trip. But on the road this same defense is allowing conference opponents to score 1.06 points per trip. Teams performing better at home than on the road is nothing new, of course, but the Wildcat D exhibits a much larger swing in performance than does this offense depending on where the game is played.
An even more illuminating way of looking at Kentucky this year has been suggested by ESPN.com contributor Matthew Giles, who points out how different the Wildcats' profile would be if they hadn't been given the statistical gift of 80 minutes against the SEC's two weakest teams, Auburn and LSU. Of course it wouldn't be fair to hold UK to a standard (no Tigers for you!) and not impose that same rule on the entire SEC. And, anyway, SEC West teams like the Crimson Tide get to play each of these struggling teams twice during the regular season, not just once like East-dwelling UK. So to keep the analysis balanced I've taken it upon myself to unilaterally reduce the SEC to ten teams: Auburn and LSU no longer exist! (Statistically.) What would the conference look like this year if we simply ignored every game in which those two teams have played?
In an SEC without any Tigers, Kentucky would have the league's fifth-best defense (again, out of ten teams), one that allows opponents 1.02 points per possession. Perhaps most telling, the non-Tiger SEC has drained 39 percent of its threes against UK this season. In the past the very name "Calipari" has been synonymous with making life miserable for opposing offenses on the perimeter. This year that is no longer the case. Against quality SEC competition this defense hasn't been very Calipari-like.
Now, back to the real-world 12-team SEC and some good news for Kentucky fans. This is an excellent offense, one that's at least as good as and maybe even a little better than last year's unit led by Wall and Cousins. Jones draws nearly seven fouls for every 40 minutes he plays, while Knight, Miller, and Doron Lamb have combined to make 45 percent of their threes this season. And no team has taken better care of the ball in SEC play: Kentucky has committed a turnover on just 17 percent of their in-conference possessions. Thanks primarily to this offense, Calipari's team is outscoring the SEC by virtually the same margin as last year. All those close losses, however, mean that the Cats have merely a 7-5 conference record to show for it.
In other words we all have to get used to some weird "optics" with this 2010-11 edition of Kentucky. Last year UK fans saw fewer close losses, obviously, but also nowhere this many made threes -- by opponents or by their own team. Nevertheless the bottom-line per-possession results have been surprisingly similar to what propelled the Wildcats to the Elite Eight last March. Can Calipari's latest crop of elite talent achieve those same bottom-line results in the NCAA tournament? The answer to that question for this offense appears to be yes, so keep your eye on the Kentucky defense.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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