LEXINGTON, Ky. – Freshman Anthony Davis is elevating Kentucky’s defense to an elite level.
The second-ranked Wildcats (18-1, 7-0) rank first in the Southeastern Conference and second in the nation by holding opponents to 35.8 percent shooting from the field. Davis leads the nation with 89 blocked shots and Kentucky has 177 rejections overall – also tops in the country.
“It helps you knowing that somebody has your weak-side help and it allows you to play more aggressively on defense,” Kentucky forward Terrence Jones said. “It just gives you more comfort knowing that he is back there. It gives you confidence that if you get beat that he will be there to block the shot or at least alter it.”
Kentucky plays the SEC’s second-stingiest defense in Alabama today. The Crimson Tide rank sixth in the nation allowing opponents to hit 37 percent of their shots.
“Alabama’s a Sweet 16 team in my mind as is Florida, as is Vandy and Mississippi State,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Last year, they beat us down there. They beat us in the paint. They beat us in the scoreboard. They beat us physically. They beat us a hundred different ways.”
But the Crimson Tide (13-5, 2-2) did it without having to face Davis or fellow freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague or Kyle Wiltjer. Davis has 10 double-doubles and is coming off a career-best 27-point performance that included 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots in an 86-63 victory over Arkansas on Tuesday that’s helped the Wildcats rank just behind Wisconsin in field-goal percentage defense.
“We’ve got a lot of shot blockers, and we defend the ball well on the ball. We’ve got a lot on defense,” guard Doron Lamb said. “Anthony, Michael and Terrence all block shots really well.”
What’s made Davis’ defense so impressive is his ability to keep the ball in play and give the rest of the Wildcats a chance to recover on his blocks. After his seven blocks against the Razorbacks, Kentucky grabbed five rebounds, Arkansas got one and Davis knocked another out of play.
“If I block it out of bounds, it gives them another opportunity to try to score,” Davis said. “If I keep it in play, I’m going to get the rebound and then we have the ball and we can push it up the floor and try to get a quick bucket.”
Alabama forward JaMychal Green said that Davis’ block numbers stand out.
“We just have to play smart and keep him on his toes,” Green said.
Calipari wasn’t entirely pleased with defense late in the blowout against the Razorbacks. Arkansas shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and hit four of its final seven shots over the final 41/2 minutes against mostly reserves.
“You take pride in your defense. We have a chance to lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense, why wouldn’t we?” Calipari said. “That’s a badge of honor to be that good. But what happens is the last two, three minutes of the game, those guys got to guard, too, or they’re going to end up playing 30 seconds instead of two minutes. So it is important.”
Alabama’s defense has been a trademark of coach Anthony Grant, but the offense has struggled with two straight losses since the Crimson Tide won five in a row. Alabama went nearly 7 minutes without a basket in the first half of a 69-59 loss to Vanderbilt on Thursday night.
“They were able to hit their shots. We weren’t able to come up on them in the first half, but that shouldn’t have stopped us from playing defense,” guard Trevor Releford said.
Grant hopes his team learns that lesson quickly heading into Rupp Arena, where Kentucky has won its last 45 games as part of the nation’s longest home winning streak of 46.
“They’ve got a very long, physical and quick team. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job of taking care of the basketball and making sure that we can limit their opportunities to get easy baskets through what they create with their defense,” Grant said.