Swarming defense ignites Kentucky
One day a little more than two years ago, Kentucky Wildcats women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell looked at a roster of vertically challenged players, then at his team's Southeastern Conference rivals, then back to his roster and came to a conclusion.
Considering that Mitchell, at the time preparing for his second season, did not have a player over 6 feet tall and that most preseason predictions projected UK to be little more than practice fodder in the tough SEC, it might have been understandable that he would consider fleeing.
Except, instead of Mitchell, it was the Wildcats who would hot-foot it to bigger and better things.
"Out of desperation to be competitive," the coach said.
"We were having a tough time recruiting," said Mitchell, 40, a Mississippi native who talks with a syrupy drawl. "We ended up with a bunch of pretty athletic kids, but they were pretty small. I felt the only way to be competitive was to play pressure defense. So it started there."
He stressed running, fundamentals and footwork. And more running.
Now in his fifth season, Mitchell has put together a team proudly powered by perhaps the most annoying, full-court-pressing, trapping, turnover-inducing, patience-taxing, wear-you-out defense in the country. The Wildcats are 11-1 and ranked eighth.
"We're not reacting to the game, we're initiating," sophomore guard Kastine Evans said. "We get a lot of teams to play our game. Just seeing how frustrated the other team gets when you force them into a lot of turnovers makes it a fun style to play."
The Wildcats' defensive pressure, dubbed "40 minutes of dread," led the nation in turnover margin (plus-15.7) and ranked third in steals (16.2) as of Tuesday. The UK women have forced an SEC-high 399 turnovers this season, an attention-grabbing 33.2 per game.
Rotating as many as 11 players throughout every game, the Wildcats come at opponents at an exhaustive pace, on occasion with four guards on the floor. Think of them as a swarm of pesky mosquitoes: The first few bites are only slightly annoying, but before long, if something isn't done, they're going to suck the life out of you.
We think our pressure is going to get to them. You can sense it, especially if you get a point guard who doesn't want to come back to the ball because we're getting so much pressure, and makes somebody else dribble the ball up. We take pride in that.Kentucky guard A'dia Mathies
"You never know when it's going to come, but we just know eventually they are going to get worn down because of our depth," said junior guard A'dia Mathies, the 2010 SEC freshman of the year and a second-team all-conference player last season.
"We think our pressure is going to get to them. You can sense it, especially if you get a point guard who doesn't want to come back to the ball because we're getting so much pressure, and makes somebody else dribble the ball up. We take pride in that."
In a 101-43 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff early this season, the Cats forced a school-record 49 turnovers. Nebraska-Omaha coughed up the ball 42 times.
"Their defense has got to be one of the best in the country," Omaha coach Chance Lindley said afterward.
Not even No. 5 Duke was immune to UK's defensive persistence. In Kentucky's 72-65 upset victory, the normally steady Blue Devils committed 24 turnovers.
"Second half, I thought their pressure was better, got to give them credit for better pressure," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "I also think we didn't run the floor and see as well because of that pressure. ... You have to credit [their] defense there."
Even when No. 3 Notre Dame, playing at home, handed the Wildcats their first loss on Dec. 18, Kentucky pilfered the Irish for 22 turnovers.
"We want you to dread coming in and having to play Kentucky," Mitchell said. "We want you to say, 'Oh my gosh, we have to play this for 40 minutes,' because we're not going to be real tricky. You're going to know when we come in we're going to try to play as hard as we can with as many people coming at you, and not stop."
Mitchell came to Kentucky after going 30-29 in two seasons at Morehead State. Before that he spent time as a graduate assistant under Pat Summitt at Tennessee and then served as an assistant at Florida and Kentucky.
His first year at Kentucky produced a 17-16 season and the soul-searching decision to commit to defense as the team strength. The next season ended 16-16, but in 2010 the Wildcats clawed all the way to the NCAA Elite Eight and finished 28-8. Last season they went 25-9 and made the NCAA tournament again, falling in the second round.
Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, when Mitchell implemented UK's pressure defense, the Cats have forced 20 or more turnovers in 63 of 82 games, including all 12 games this season. During that time, Kentucky is 34-1 when forcing 25-plus miscues.
"It's just evolved over the last three seasons, but now I think, as far as a coaching personality, I'd much rather coach this than any other type of style," Mitchell said. "It started out as desperate measures, and it has evolved into what it is today. And I think that's pretty exciting for our kids."
Leading the Wildcats' march is Mathies, a 5-foot-9 junior from Louisville who already ranks in Kentucky's all-time top 10 in steals and appeared on this season's Naismith Award preseason watch list. She leads the team in scoring (16.1 points per game) and steals (3.8 per game). Freshman Bria Gross is adding 12.3 points and 5.1 rebounds, while 6-3 sophomore Samantha Drake, the only 6-foot starter, is the team's leading rebounder at 6.3 per game.
"We know we are smaller than most teams," Mathies said. "We also know we're quick. So we want to use that as our advantage. And we have a lot of team chemistry and believe in each other out on the court."
With little doubt, the Wildcats' team chemistry is a wicked test-tube mix of sweat equity and misery loves company.
Mitchell opened preseason practice with three consecutive weeks of fundamentals and running. After coming across a motivational book that preached the success of "21 days to form a habit," the coach adopted the concept to ingrain the game's most basic, but often unappreciated, skills.
"We go hard every day of practice in order to build up stamina," Mathies said. "To cause fatigue to your opponents you have got to be in great shape. In order to get in great shape, you've got to get tired.
"Sometimes you think you are going to pass out, but you've just got to give your all, and we do that a lot."
Considering the new and improved notoriety of the UK women's program, Mitchell assuredly could return to the "traditional approach" of fitting his lineup with size, strength and shooting skill.
At least for now, he wouldn't dream of it.
"I really appreciate the spirit of people who want to do everything they can to be their best," he said. "I don't know from top to bottom that we have the most talented team in the country; I'm probably quite certain we don't. But I think it would be the neatest thing if this team would believe in each other, work really hard, stay together and the sum becomes greater than its parts."
The Wildcats seem more than willing to take that idea and run with it.