February 21, 2013
Kentucky's defense without Nerlens Noel has gone from a fringe elite unit to a mediocre one at best. Granted, two games is a small sample size, but the issues are clear. UK got beat on the perimeter, no longer had someone under the basket to deter slashers or erase mistakes, and were outrebounded by Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
But on the last full possession, when Kentucky needed a stop to all but seal the win, the Wildcats got it with great defense. Every player executed his assignment, and UK exhibited better communication and rotation. They also showed why this defense still has the length, athleticism and versatility to be a good defense if they can ramp up their execution and focus.
We'll pick up the play midway through the shot clock, but I want to make a point of noting that UK had already, to this point, stopped a pick-and-roll and countered an inside screen between Harrow and Cauley-Stein that was supposed to get one of them in a too-big or too-little mismatch.
Anyway, here's the part of the play that stood out to me. Vanderbilt runs a baseline screen for Kendren Johnson, a 36.2 percent shooter from outside. Down five, the Commodores would love to get a clean 3-point shot; they had already experienced plenty of success on that one, making 10 threes up to this point, many wide open.
Julius Mays is guarding Johnson. He sees the screen coming and communicates this to Alex Poythress, who leaves -- albeit a tad slowly -- his man to jump out on Johnson. He's almost too late, but his reaction and length prevent Johnson from pulling up for a shot. Here's the full play in GIF form:
After shutting that option down, Vanderbilt tries to use a screen on Cauley-Stein to get him matched on a guard. Cauley-Stein prevents a drive, though, which leads to Vanderbilt getting the ball in the hands of Kyle Fuller at the top of the court. He's going to drive to force the action -- time is running down -- only for UK's defense to converge on him. Cauley-Stein took a bit of a gamble leaving his man on the perimeter, but it was a move that paid off -- he came underneath the basket far enough to block the layup:
UK shut down multiple options and looks by a Vanderbilt team that had had one its best offensive games of the season to that point. This play is how UK needs to play on the defensive end without Noel: switching, rotating, communicating, and bothering passing lanes and shots. They don't have a great rim protector anymore, but if they defend near the level they did on this play consistently, the Cats can still have a good defense.