November 24, 2011

Cats debut new zone defense in win

Length. Athleticism. Aggressiveness.

Add them together, and Kentucky has found a recipe for a potent defense during its last two games.

The Wildcats held Radford to 26.2 shooting from the field on Wednesday at Rupp Arena en route to an 88-40 romp over the Highlanders. Radford didn't score for the first 9:36 of the game as Kentucky took a 14-0 lead that was never threatened.

Even though Wildcats got off to a slow start, a smothering defense ensured its perfect record was never in danger. When Radford tried to slow the pace of the game, Kentucky attacked and forced turnovers. The Highlanders never found a rhythm, struggling to score all night.

"There are two things you can do when a team tries to hold the ball until the shot clock winds down. You have to really bother them," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "You can't just let them do it because they're not trying to score. You try to steal the ball, try to get up in people, try to be active with your hands. After a while, you're wearing them out more than they're wearing you out."

Radford missed its first 12 field goal attempts and shot 2-25 from 3-point range on the night. Kentucky also held Old Dominion without a field goal in the final 7:11 of their game on Sunday. Added together with the time Radford was held scoreless, Kentucky had gone 16:47 over two games without allowing a single bucket.

"It carried over," freshman point guard Marquis Teague said.

The Highlanders finished with as many turnovers as field goals - 17. Even more impressively, 11 of those turnovers came on steals.

The Cats also switched to a zone for a period in the second half, flummoxing the Radford offense. Kentucky had begun working on a zone some weeks ago in practice before breaking it out on Wednesday as a way to test how ready it would be in game situations.

It wasn't necessary against the Highlanders, but Calipari installed it because he expects to have to use it sometime down the road. There are teams on the schedule Calipari thinks could be vulnerable against a zone, and he wants the Cats to be ready when that time comes.

"I don't see us giving up wide-open shots because we're so big," Calipari said. "I've never had a big zone like that. You think about it, we're 6-foot-10 across the line and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has a 7-foot-2 wingspan on one guy and maybe it's Doron or Marquis at the other guard. I mean, that's a big zone."

It still has a long way to go, Calipari said, but there's still time to work on it. Radford head coach Mike Jones was impressed anyway. He compared the Cats' defense to that of the 2003 Syracuse team that won the national championship.

"When you think you have a shot, they close out pretty quickly," Jones said.

Driving to the basket was difficult as well. When Radford could find room inside, it was quickly occupied by rangy defenders like forwards Anthony Davis, Eloy Vargas and Terrence Jones. Even if they could get a shot off, there was plenty of size to grab a rebound.

"They really couldn't get it in the middle like they wanted," Davis said. "They couldn't attack off the dribble and if they shot, we rebounded. They got it a couple times but when they threw the ball in the wings, we came out and stunted so it was hard for them to drive."

It wasn't perfect, but it was a start. There's time to build and learn, even though the defense has been strong in recent days for the Cats.

That's something they'll have to have going forward, Teague said. Close games require more than clockwork execution on offense. They'll have to make stops and harass opponents like they were able to with Radford.

"The defense is really important for us," Teague said. "We have so many long, athletic players on this team that we have to aggressive on defense. We have to press because we're so good at playing passing lanes and getting steals."

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