This summer, John Calipari wanted some information.
The Kentucky basketball coach tasked his staff with looking back over his previous 13 seasons in the job and figuring out the key to the program’s biggest successes during that time. Calipari noted that he threw out the 2020-21 season — “the COVID year,” as he often refers to the 9-16 slog that included very little practice time for a young UK team that never found its footing. With that exception, he wanted to dig into the stats and see what made his Wildcats click.
“One thing stood out,” he told reporters in the Bahamas last week. “Blocked shots.”
Indeed, the numbers are glaring.
In Calipari’s first six seasons at Kentucky — when the Cats went to four Final Fours, just missed a fifth and won a national championship — UK averaged at least 5.9 blocks per game each year. The 2011-12 team — Calipari’s only title squad at Kentucky — was first in the nation in blocks, with Anthony Davis leading the way. The 38-1 team of 2014-15 was second in the country in that category. Five of his first six teams finished in the top four nationally, the other — the freshman-dominant 2013-14 team led by Julius Randle — was 13th in blocked shots.
In the seven seasons since then, the Cats have never averaged more than 5.9 blocks per game. And, perhaps not coincidentally, they haven’t been back to the Final Four.
Calipari’s takeaway: “I’m playing guys that will block shots this year,” he said.
And he clearly thinks he has plenty of them.
Calipari’s Bahamas week declaration that there would be an emphasis on rim protection with this Kentucky team was foreshadowed by his coaching staff’s comments earlier in the summer.
Ask a UK assistant about these Cats’ defensive upside, get an answer about shot-blocking.
“Coach always wants guys that can play multiple positions,” Orlando Antigua said a couple of weeks before the preseason trip. “One of the key emphasis that we’re talking about is having multiple guys challenge shots, and try to get a few more possessions with our rim protection.”
“We should be really, really good defensively. We should block more shots,” Chin Coleman said that same day. “That’s a huge point of emphasis for us is our rim protection. Even though Oscar averaged one and a half blocks per game, he’s not considered a shot-blocker as much as Daimion and Jacob and some of our guards can be.”
Coleman recalled watching Kentucky play during Calipari’s first season at UK — back when he was coaching in the Chicago high school and grassroots scene — and the ability that point guards Eric Bledsoe and John Wall had as rim-protectors. Seven players on that 2009-10 team recorded at least 10 blocked shots, including Wall and Bledsoe.
“I think we have that now with some of our guards being able to also protect the rim,” Coleman said. “It won’t just come from our interior.”
The interior is where it’ll start, however, and the shot-blocking potential there is mighty impressive.
There can’t be many college teams in the country that have a frontcourt tandem like Toppin and Collins, two 6-9 forwards with ridiculous leaping ability and — in Collins’ case, particularly — game-changing length. That was on display during those four games in the Bahamas. Both players ended up with eight blocks on the trip, and — while the competition wasn’t great — it was the way many of those plays unfolded that indicated future success.
Collins and Toppin both gobble up ground in a hurry, so even if an opposing player thinks he has a good look, that window can close in an instant. There was no better example of that than Collins’ two-handed swat on a three-point attempt during the Wildcats’ victory over Tec de Monterrey, a play that looked more like something you’d see near a volleyball net than on a basketball court.
Kentucky hasn’t always had that combination of length and athleticism on the court in recent years — including last season, when the Cats blocked 4.2 shots per game and finished 63rd nationally in that stat, both record lows for the Calipari era.
“That’s why I wanted to play Daimion. That’s why Jacob was going to play more this year. Didn’t care. I’m playing ’em,” Calipari said last week. “Could I have played them more last year? Yeah, but they probably weren’t quite in the mentality they are (now). Maybe I could’ve, and by the end of the year we could have had that guy, which we needed down the stretch.”
Blocks from all over
The ability to block shots often injects some instant energy into a team, but the mere threat is also a powerful defensive deterrent that many of Calipari’s best teams have enjoyed.
What UK fan could forget the sight of players like Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein patrolling the paint — and occasionally moving out toward the perimeter — to swat back shot attempts? And, yes, the blocks were often impressive, but the way their presence alone made would-be shooters and drivers think twice was often just as entertaining to watch.
“The other thing it does — guys won’t run in there to try to shoot layups,” Calipari said. “So now you’re shooting a shot that is a lower-percentage shot. That if you miss, we’re flying.”
By Calipari’s off-the-top-of-my-head analytics, a layup has a 90-percent success rate, while having to settle for a contested shot farther from the basket goes in about a third of the time. Taking away the former to force the latter was a key to the success of his early UK teams.
“What shot-blocking does — it’s like there’s Casper in there,” he said. “There’s a ghost in there, and you don’t want to go in there. … It just changes everything when you have those guys. And I’m looking at it now, and I’m telling you — I’m going to play those guys that are gonna block more shots.”
On this team, that could be just about anyone.
Collins and Toppin have the ability to be dynamite rim-protectors. Tshiebwe and Ware have enough grit and athleticism to disrupt shots. Calipari seemed just as excited by the sight of Wallace and Livingston — 6-4 and 6-6, respectively — managing to block shots in early practices. Wallace, especially, is known as a crafty defender, and his ability to execute chase-down blocks reminded Calipari of the past.
“When I saw our guards, that’s like Eric Bledsoe blocking balls. Or John Wall blocking balls,” he said. “All the sudden, you’ve got people blocking from all different places.”
Even freshman guard Adou Thiero, who was expected to be the 10th man on this Kentucky team, blocked five balls in the Bahamas. And the Cats haven’t even seen late addition Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso — already a top-notch rim-protector — on the practice floor yet this summer.
When a team has multiple guys that can block shots on the court at the same time — as this Kentucky squad looks like it will — the margin for error shifts. Players can slide over on help defense and swat shots away. Guys can come from behind, even if they get beat off the dribble, and make up for their initial mistake. Open three-point looks can turn into contested shots in a hurry as defenders close fast and use that length and athleticism to their advantage. And players like Collins and Toppin can keep offensive foes at arm’s length, not needing to get up close and risk a foul, knowing they can make their defensive move when the time comes.
Before the first game of the Bahamas trip, UK radio announcer Tom Leach asked Calipari if this could be one of his best defensive teams at Kentucky.
“I have no idea,” Calipari quickly replied. “It’s too early. It’s August.”
But he certainly made it clear he has high expectations.
“When I’ve had shot-blocking teams, we’ve been to Final Fours, national titles,” he continued. “And when we haven’t, we’ve been good teams … but it’s hard to have a breakthrough game in that tournament without someone who can block shots.”
In Kentucky’s only national title game victory under Calipari, the Cats managed 11 blocks against Kansas. Davis had six of them, but it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s denial of a reverse layup after getting beat on a backdoor cut with a little more than a minute left in a close game that stands out the most.
It’s that ability to seemingly come out of nowhere and make a play on the ball that this UK team could take into March. And perhaps it’ll take them into April.
“I’ve been telling a lot of people — we’re getting better because we’re playing against the best players in the country in practice every day,” senior guard CJ Fredrick said during the Bahamas trip. “… I haven’t played on a team with this kind of length and this kind of athleticism, and this summer defense has been a huge emphasis. And I think you’re seeing just a little bit of what we can do on the defensive end.”