Film room: Duke men's basketball can exploit Kentucky's underperforming defense

Kentucky's defense looked unpolished through their first two exhibition games, which could spell good things for the Blue Devils.
Kentucky's defense looked unpolished through their first two exhibition games, which could spell good things for the Blue Devils.

With Duke men's basketball's first regular season game against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden just around the corner, the Blue Zone takes a look at some film to analyze what Blue Devil faithful can expect come Tuesday:

After a disappointing 2020-21 season in which the Wildcats finished just 9-16, head coach John Calipari decided to take a step away from assembling a team of highly-touted one-and-dones. This strategy has worked for many years for the top programs in the country, but has recently faltered slightly especially when put to the test against teams of experienced upperclassmen. In the offseason, Kentucky acquired four key transfers: crafty point guard Sahvir Wheeler from Georgia, sharpshooters CJ Fredrick from Iowa and Kellan Grady from Davidson and big Oscar Tshiebwe from West Virginia. 

On paper, this is a very dangerous Kentucky team. Wheeler, Fredrick and Tshiebwe are juniors, and Grady joins guard Davion Mintz as the two graduate students on the team. With only three freshmen even on the roster, this is a much more seasoned Kentucky team than we’ve seen in a long time. Perhaps the most intimidating aspect of the team, however, is the fact that Calipari’s team, one that usually focuses principally on defense, has the potential to be one of the most high-octane three-point shooting teams in the nation. 

Although the game against Duke at Madison Square Garden Nov. 9 will be the Wildcats’ first regular season contest, the team has already faced two Division II opponents in preseason exhibition games. Despite coming out on top over both Kentucky Wesleyan College and Miles College, the stacked Kentucky roster was not quite as dominant as expected, leading to some key takeaways that could come into play in their Champions Classic matchup with Duke. 

At its best, Kentucky’s offense has looked every bit as scary as it’s expected to be. The Wildcats look very comfortable shooting from beyond the arc, and seem to plan on doing so early and often. Led by Grady, Wheeler, five-star freshman TyTy Washington Jr. and junior forward Keion Brooks Jr., the team shot a respectable 36.8% from 3 in the Kentucky-Wesleyan game and then a blistering 50.0% from range against Miles. When they are settled in and clicking, the Wildcats have been moving the ball very well, penetrating off the dribble and then kicking out to a shooter, even executing simple set plays to get someone open.

The first clip is a prime example of the dribble drive drawing out the defense, leading to a wide open 3. Mintz gets the ball on the left wing from Washington, who is at the top of the key. Mintz jab steps to the outside and then drives towards the middle, getting a step on his defender and forcing Washington to help. Washington does the wise thing and slides slightly to the right and gets ready for the shot, gaining even more distance from his man who is helping on ball and giving Mintz an easy kick for the shot. It doesn’t hurt that Washington shot a flawless 100% from three in the two exhibition games combined. While this tactic is nothing revolutionary, it works so well because as soon as the defense is out of position, for a decent-shooting team, many high-percentage outside shots are created. 

The second clip was maybe the Wildcats’ best play of the season so far, a set play developed and run to perfection. Wheeler starts with the ball at the top of the key, but then feeds it to Tshiebwe in the high post. Meanwhile, Brooks is very exaggeratedly setting up an off-ball screen in the corner to free up Kellan Grady for a shot. As predicted, Brooks catches Grady’s man on the screen, and Grady runs up and takes the handoff from Tshiebwe. At this point, the entire defense is expecting Grady to shoot, leading to a double-commit on Grady. This forces Brooks’ man to cover Tshiebwe rolling to the basket, leaving Brooks quite literally all alone in the corner, where he receives the pass from Grady and knocks down the 3. 

While Kentucky’s offense looked explosive yet polished, its defense was not as convincing. Duke was able to effectively shut down its D-II exhibition opponent, holding Winston-Salem State to just 13 first-half points and 22% shooting for the game. Kentucky did not look nearly this dominant defensively in either game, but were especially sluggish against Miles College, allowing them to shoot 11-15 from 3 in the first half. The Wildcats were down seven at the half and ended up with a single-digit victory. 

The team appears to lack both quickness and communication. Miles burned Kentucky on the perimeter repeatedly, taking advantage of slow rotations and lethargic close-outs to light it up from deep. This was exemplified right at the end of the first half in the clip below. 

The help defense is also often late and poorly coordinated, allowing for easy finishes around the basket. This was apparent in both games, and can be seen here against Kentucky Wesleyan. 

Ultimately, Kentucky has the pieces to be one of the best teams in the nation, and will undoubtedly test the Blue Devils in their first real game of the season, especially if CJ Fredrick is cleared to play. However, if Duke is able to play fast from the jump, they may be able to take advantage of Kentucky’s so-far lackluster defense and set the tone of the game early. 


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