Kentucky's 7 p.m. tip at home vs. Ole Miss on Tuesday marks the start of an SEC season the Wildcats are expected to emerge from not only as the sport's clear national title favorite -- that status is secured no matter what happens -- but also unbeaten, with a chance to make March history.
Those are lofty expectations, but they exist for good reason. Not only is the rest of the SEC mediocre, but the Wildcats' specific and overwhelming strengths aren't subject to the inconsistencies of playing on the road. Kentucky doesn't need to make shots to win a surprisingly tough visit to, say, South Carolina. Its offense can be slightly less than perfect from time to time. Its lineup never has to be ideal. Neither a cold night from the floor nor a pouty starting guard will necessarily doom it to defeat.
Why? Defense. With 13 nonconference games behind them, the Wildcats are still on that historic defensive pace, allowing just .81 points per possession (adjusted for competition). For reference, the stingiest defense of the 2013-14 season -- Arizona -- allowed .88. Since 2002, the earliest year in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency database, no team has come close to that mark over the course of a season. Kentucky may well maintain it. Even a slight regression might still allow the Wildcats to sneak under the previous tempo-free high set by the John Calipari-coached Memphis Tigers in 2009. There's wiggle room.
Those are the two most likely options: maintenance or slight regression. But what about the third option? What if Kentucky still has room to improve?
In a Monday news conference, Calipari hinted at the things his staff have "zeroed in on" in the nine days since a road win at Louisville:
"Before we played Louisville, our biggest issue was our defensive rebounding. Our percentage offensive rebounding was off the charts. Nearly 50 percent of our misses, we were rebounding. But defensively, it was off the charts the wrong way. We were 13th in our league. So we zeroed in on it. So now there's a few areas that we're looking at, like, 'OK, let's now keep these players engaged and get them to focus on a couple areas,' which is what we've done the last seven, eight days. And obviously I'm not talking about those things. But you'll see them."
Louisville rebounded 38.3 percent of its misses on Dec. 27, roughly their season average. That's not a particularly low number, but amid UK's usual no-chance first-shot defense around the rim, and the Cardinals' horrid shooting from the perimeter, a merely average offensive rebounding cancelled out Louisville's only obvious scoring hope.
This fits a theme. Offensive rebounding has been Kentucky's lone defensive "flaw" this season -- the Wildcats allow opponents to grab just 33 percent of their misses on average, which ranks 272nd in the country. That number is the natural stylistic outgrowth of having so many big men attempt to block so many shots. It's almost a choice. And it hasn't mattered, because Kentucky allows the lowest 2-point shooting, and blocks the most shots, in college basketball. Oh, you grabbed an offensive rebound? Way to go! Now try putting it in the basket. You see the problem.
Still, Calipari's quote got the wheels turning: What if Kentucky does get better on the defensive boards? It's hardly inconceivable. A slight tweak to interior defensive rotations might do the trick. Maybe, instead of launching every 7-footer on the floor at an impending interior shot, Calipari drills his off-ball defenders to stay home. With this much tall talent at his disposal, is it that hard to imagine Kentucky altering the same number of shots while also chasing down more defensive rebounds? Is it impossible to picture this team, so overwhelmingly better than its conference schedule, adding new dimensions on the fly?
It isn't, right? Which means that as good as UK's defense has been so far, there is at least a possibility that it will get better. At which point we'll be dealing less with a college basketball team's great defense than an organism whose structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
We can't lie to the rest of the SEC about its chances. But it does have our sympathies.