Kentucky Basketball: Defense driving force behind Wildcats’ resurgence

Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports /

Kentucky basketball is on the upswing, and the resurgence can be attributed to some stifling defense.

Over the course of various decades, when it comes to basketball, the Kentucky Wildcats have been considered unanimously the “Top Dogs” of the SEC.  On the other hand, some might argue that that dog has lost quite a bit of its bite, not being near as dominant in conference play or in overall play over the past few seasons.

Over the last three seasons, head coach John Calipari has accumulated an overall record of 45-29.  The Wildcats went 9-16 during the COVID season of 2020 and lost to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament (some would argue that to be the most devastating defeat in the history of the program).

Kentucky basketball has not garnered an NCAA tournament victory since 2019, and this year, for the most part, the program seemed to be heading in the same direction.  The Cats are currently sitting at 11-6 with four of those losses coming by double digits — 16 at Gonzaga, 10 to UCLA, 15 at Missouri, and 26 at Alabama.

All hope seemed lost until the Cats traveled to Knoxville and bounced back from consecutive losses as they beat the 5th-ranked Vols 63-56. Defense was the difference maker in this game as the Cats played physically and forced the Vols into earning bucket after bucket for 40 minutes.

Even with the huge Quad 1 win, fans still doubted the Big Blue, wondering “was this game a fluke.”  Yet, the Cats continued their winning ways topping a 13-4 team in Georgia 85-71 in Rupp Arena.

While Defense may not have been the talk throughout the first half of the game, it definitely affected the Dawgs in the second half as they blew an 8-point lead going into the break and the Wildcats amassed an impressive 51 points in the second.

Oscar Tshiebwe looked to be back in form putting up huge numbers with 37 points and 24 rebounds in 38 minutes.  Jacob Toppin also left the arena with a double-double and the leadership of CJ Frederick on the court received songs of praise from Coach Cal following the game.

With the absence of Sahvir Wheeler against Tennessee, as well as very limited minutes against his former alma-mater, Georgia (11 minutes to be exact) many analysts have speculated on just was has been the difference in the Cats these past two games.

Can Kentucky basketball keep the upward trend going?

Some, like Matt Jones of KSR, seem to point the success toward the lineup of Wallace, Reeves, Frederick, Toppin, and Tshiebwe, which has doubled the efficiency of any other combination of Wildcats in their time on the court.

Others have pointed toward the improved free throw shooting shown by the Cats in the last two games.  And some, such as coach Calipari, have pointed toward the different energy shown by the team.  It seems the defensive energy has picked up, the team chemistry is similar now to what we were witnessing in the Bahamas and we are now seeing offensive production from players outside of Oscar.

All in all, as Calipari mentioned in the post-game show following the Georgia victory, the Wildcats are now showing the mentality of playing to win, rather than playing for personal success and accolades.

That is the key. Cal went on to point out that early in the game, after a made bucket by the returning Player of the Year, the team was collectively chanting “feed Oscar the Ball” or “Get him the ball.”  That show of selflessness was evident in the 2nd half routing of the Bulldogs.

Click below to see all of Coach Cal’s post-game comments:

Kentucky has now won four straight games and is poised to make a move in the ultra-competitive SEC.

In order for the Cats to push toward making a postseason run this mentality and attitude will need to continue, along with similar defensive energy and pressure.  We might wanna see some more of the working lineups as well.

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