- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Much has been made of Kentucky's defense, specifically Anthony Davis's role within it, and for good reason: The Wildcats are an excellent defensive team, and Davis, who blocks a boatload of shots, affects countless others, and transforms the paint into a de facto do-not-enter zone, is the most important component therein. These abilities present a series of no-win situations for UK opponents. Your humble hoops blogger spent much of last Friday afternoon trying to wrap his head around exactly how opposing teams are going to attack Kentucky's defense. He didn't come up with much. (Next in the list of possibilities: The high screen and roll? At least get Davis away from the rim? I don't know. It seems worth a shot, at least.) At this point in the season, no team in the country is playing more impressive basketball than the Wildcats, and that Davis-led defense deserves most of the credit.
At least at first glance, that is. Turns out, this impression is slightly mistaken, and we have John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths, chock full of tempo-free goodness, to thank for setting us straight.
As John writes, it's not that Kentucky isn't a very good defensive team. Oh, it is. It's just all this talk about UK's defense has obscured the reality of the situation, which is as follows: The Wildcats are even better on offense. True story! UK is allowing opponents to score an average of .92 points per trip in league play, just slightly fewer than Alabama and Tennessee (.95 ppp). On the other side of the ball, however, UK is scoring 1.19 ppp. The teams closest to that mark -- Florida and Vanderbilt -- are both tied with 1.09. Add it all up, and you still get an absolutely ridiculous efficiency margin of +0.27.
Yes, you read that right, but you can be forgiven if you just spit your Coke Zero on your keyboard. (Hey, I almost did. It happens.) It's the kind of number you might have seen when John Calipari's Memphis teams were running roughshod over the much weaker Conference USA, but efficiency margins like that rarely, if ever, happen in a power-six league. Consider that second-place Vanderbilt's efficiency margin is just +0.11, or that 26-1 Syracuse has an efficiency margin of +0.17, or that Ohio State -- the closest thing to Kentucky in conference tempo-free results this season -- registered a +0.22. Mr. Gasaway puts it into further perspective in his breakdown:
That scoring margin you see up there next to Kentucky's name is ridiculous. It doesn't happen, at least not in major conferences. The awe that the Wildcats have earned is therefore entirely justified, but let us strive to be accurate with our open-mouthed stares -- particularly with this defense and the precise nature of Anthony Davis' amazingness. Davis is indeed amazing, of course, and (a big) part of how we respond to him is based on the fact that he's just a freshman. Conversely a basketball doesn't care how old the guy blocking it happens to be, and in terms of blocking shots Davis is no more amazing than Jeff Withey or Fab Melo. (Side note: I want to see a Jeff Withey wingspan poster. Get on that, Lawrence!) So Kentucky is great this year not because they're "committed" to defense in a way that their predecessors in Lexington were not (the 2010 team was just as good on D), but rather because they have a great defense which has been eclipsed, as seen here, by an even greater offense.
First, on Davis, John's right: His block rate is 15.2 as of today. Withey's is 15.01, and Melo's is 14.52; that trio ranks No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 in the nation in block rate, respectively. (Another true story: Davis' block percentage isn't the best in the country. Rhamel Brown of the Manhattan Jaspers, take your well-earned bow.) The point is well-taken, but I do think the numbers don't quite capture all of Davis's defensive value. They don't record the shots he affects without blocking, for example, nor do they account for the shots opposing players simply don't take. Plus, Davis's unique combination of size and quickness allows him to challenge shots all the way out to the 3-point line, something Melo and Withey rarely do.
In any case, though, the numbers are what they are for a reason: As good as this Kentucky defense has been, and it has been good, the Wildcats' offense is the real secret to their success in SEC play. Make no mistake: Calipari's team has been absurdly, even historically, dominant. But they've done so for different reasons than you might think.