Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#1)

Kentucky defense

Isaiah Jackson is lethal

As bad as the offense Kentucky possesses is – and, yes, it is very stinky – the defense is actually really good. The Wildcats rank 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, have the best block percentage in the SEC (16% of all opponent two-pointers), and, despite being a middling defensive rebounding team and a defense that forces very few turnovers, has held its own against most opponents. While Tennessee’s held all but four opponents below 1 PPP, Kentucky’s held all but five. Even Alabama only got to 0.97 PPP in a 70-59 loss last week.

As usual, the crux of all this starts in the frontcourt, which is probably unsurprising because Kentucky possesses the fifth-tallest roster in all of basketball. Freshman (and irregular starter) Isaiah Jackson has risen from not on draft boards to a potential lottery pick because he is absolutely demolishing all oncomers at the rim.

Jackson has an individual Block Percentage of 15%, which ranks second in the nation and first by some margin among power-conference players. Now, as I mentioned in the offensive section, Jackson doesn’t do much at all offensively. He turns it over a ton, can’t shoot, and can’t pass. And yet: the blocks. Any player who can do this over and over like Jackson can has at least some sort of NBA future, however limited it may be.

Which is why Isaiah Jackson should play more than 21 minutes a game

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, it is pretty much only Jackson at the rim. No other Wildcat has more than seven blocks at the rim; Jackson has 29. This can help us to understand two things: why Jackson played 34 minutes against Missouri despite having almost no impact offensively, and why Kentucky’s defense is nearly 10 points worse per 100 possessions when Jackson is off the court. It’s kind of simple: when Jackson leaves, no other Kentucky defender can single-handedly stop a drive or cut to the rim.

Kentucky goes from allowing a 56.3% hit rate at the rim with Jackson on the court (would rank 103rd nationally) to a 63.4% one when he’s off (292nd), per Hoop-Explorer. That’s the same percentile difference from playing Tennessee’s defense (50.5%, 11th) to Georgetown (57.5%, 138th). When Sarr is at center and Jackson is off the floor, Kentucky allows a 64.7% hit rate at the rim (300th; like playing Cal State Fullerton). In recent memory, Kentucky hasn’t really had this problem. It’s alarming that the defense can go from roughly a top-five unit with Jackson out there to barely a top-100 unit when he’s off.

Of course, if it were just the rim that were the problem here, you could write it off as a weird one-off thing. The Wildcats still block 14.6% of all rim attempts and 14.1% of non-rim two-pointers, which respectively rank 35th and 2nd nationally. It’s what keeps them afloat despite unblocked rim attempts being converted at a 70% rate. If it were all just about blocking shots, they’d be in business. But…again, Jackson is the deciding factor here. When Jackson is on the court, opponents only take 24.3% of their shots from non-rim two-pointer land and are forced to take more threes. More importantly, they’re only hitting 18.7% of these shots:

No team would sustain the 18.7% rate for an entire season, and it’s probably more likely that the true FG% of sorts would be around 22-24%. That’s still mighty impressive, and Jackson’s time on the court is what earns Kentucky’s status as the #1 non-rim two-pointer defense in all of college basketball. Yet there’s a tiny, crucial slip when Jackson leaves the court. That hit rate on non-rim twos jumps from 18.7% to 31.1%, per Hoop-Explorer, simply because it is much easier to just get the shot off in the first place.

This is not to say that lineups with Jackson are inherently terrible. They’re still good enough, and even that 31.1% hit rate is good enough for 23rd-best nationally. But it’s pretty clear that if Jackson isn’t on the court, a seriously threatening Kentucky defense becomes much easier to deal with and handle.

Their three-point defense is a more skillful combination of luck and skill than most programs have

Beyond Jackson, one of the constants about Kentucky basketball under John Calipari has been to sustain the unsustainable: an every-year good-to-great three-point defense. While three-point defense is still heavily luck-based, Calipari gets around it by sheer height. If Kentucky can’t have four or even three-shooter lineups, they’re always going to have lineups where at least four players are 6’7” or taller and it’s very hard to shoot over the top of them. This is true off-the-dribble, obviously:

But it’s equally true out of a spot-up situation. Kentucky is barely above the national average in Guarded/Unguarded shots (56/44) in half-court, per Synergy, but an unguarded Kentucky three is not the same as a lot of other unguarded threes. You still have to alter your shot, whether mentally or physically, and that alone lowers the chance of it going in:

If today’s numbers hold, Kentucky will finish its 11th season in 12 years under Calipari in the top 100 of 3PT% defense. That’s pretty remarkable. And yet, as ever: four of the five times Kentucky has allowed 1+ PPP have come in games where the opponent hit 35% or more of their threes.

You still have to take these shots, and generally, the better an opponent is at constant inside-out movement, the less likely Kentucky (or anyone) will be to guard the shot properly. Tennessee has to keep the ball constantly moving in this game. I think pretty much everyone is tired of seeing the ball die in a guard’s hands for 15 seconds at a time; motion should mean motion, you know?

NEXT PAGE: Tennessee has their own problems, but they aren’t as deep as the ones on the last two pages

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