Difficult practices lead to efficient defensive performance for Kentucky


Kentucky freshman guard Tyler Herro guards a North Dakota player as they bring the ball up the court during the game on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky defeated North Dakota 96 to 58. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Kentucky’s defense was the thing that received the most critiques from the exhibition performances and the meltdown against Duke, but the Wildcats showed what they could do defensively against North Dakota. 

Against the Fighting Hawks, Kentucky forced 20 turnovers while limiting North Dakota to 40 percent shooting from the floor. Coming into the game, the Wildcats had forced 17 turnovers between its first two opponents, and forcing turnovers was something John Calipari emphasized in his game plan.

“There were a couple plays in the post where we just got scored on and I’m like ‘come on now,’ but I liked the fact that we turned somebody over finally,” Calipari said after the game.

Kentucky also had 12 steals for the evening, which is the third-highest steal count in the Calipari-era. Three different players had more than one steal, thanks to keeping their hands active in North Dakota’s passing lanes.

“They ran a lot of step-up screens and side-ball screens to try to kick it back, so just anticipating that for a steal,” Tyler Herro said, who finished with a team-high five steals.

Coming into Wednesday’s game, the Fighting Hawks had not turned the ball over more than 14 times in their first two games. Kentucky’s size and athleticism was the main thing that threw North Dakota’s offense out of rhythm, as they haven’t faced a team this season with the measurements that the Wildcats have.

“From start to finish, obviously they picked you up full-court, just token pressure and just wore you down, made different ball handlers bring it up to keep you out of your offense,” North Dakota’s head coach Brian Jones said of Kentucky’s defense. 

One thing that helped produce Kentucky’s best defensive game of the season is the intensity that’s been present in resent practices. Following both of the previous regular season games, Calipari has talked about how he’s holding his players more accountable in practice and pushing them out of their comfort zone. 

He said he’s even had to back-track to the basics for this team, who might’ve had expectations set too high for them at the start of the year. The change in practice has benefitted the team on the court, the players believe.

“That’s the biggest thing we’ve been working on, just was team defense,” P.J. Washington said. “We do a drill that’s called the perfect stop, it’s 30 seconds, you got to play through the whole time and can’t let them score or get in the paint. I think we did a good job of applying that drill to the court today.”

Keldon Johnson, one of the most defensively minded players on Kentucky’s roster, said he believes they took a step forward tonight on the defensive side of the ball because of the way practices have been. On top of the “perfect stop” drill, Calipari has also made the players do wall-sits for three straight minutes with weight plates on their laps, as well as many more exhausting defensive-related drills.

“I think that was the main thing with a lot of us as freshmen, just getting out and playing in a defense in our defensive stance when we get tired or we’re fighting through fatigue,” Johnson said.

Calipari is likely to continue to continue the difficult practices since it showed positive results against North Dakota. If the defense continues to improve like it has in the past week, it could become a problem for opponents.

“They got a chance to be special defensively if they continue to work and grow at it,” Jones said.