The most important way in which the Kentucky Wildcats are matching the Tennessee Volunteers through one month of SEC basketball is simply this: Big Blue hasn’t lost a single conference game, just like Big Orange.
If the No. 1 seed in the South Region is to belong to the Cats, it is imperative that Kentucky finish ahead of Tennessee by the time 18 regular-season SEC games and three conference tournament games have been played. If the two teams’ SEC bodies of work are exactly the same, Tennessee’s win over Gonzaga and UK’s loss to Seton Hall (both teams beat Louisville, and Kentucky defeated North Carolina) would likely give the Vols a slight edge in the pursuit of a 1 seed and/or a home-region placement in the South, possibly as a 2 seed behind Duke or Virginia. Kentucky has to keep pace with Tennessee, and so far, it has.
There is another way, however, in which Kentucky is matching Tennessee, and this point of commonality matters almost as much as the win column: The Wildcats are showing they can take punches on the road and respond.
They already did this at Auburn — which is not an easy place to win — but now Kentucky has done exactly what Tennessee did a few weeks earlier: Get outplayed for the first 28 minutes at Florida and turn the game around down the stretch. When Tennessee outfought the Gators in Gainesville, it was the kind of win which sent a message to the rest of the SEC and announced the Vols as a team which has the resilience and ruggedness of a No. 1 seed in difficult situations. It is no different — not at all — for Big Blue after a very similar conquest against the Gators: sluggish, but never soft, and ultimately, clearly superior in spite of offensive woes.
You can still note that Kentucky’s perimeter shooting needs work, and that the Cats have to become a more polished offensive team if they want to maximize their chances of being a Final Four team this April, but it is becoming increasingly clearer that Kentucky has become quite adept at reducing opponents’ margins and limiting opponents’ avenues to victory. The initial halfcourt defense, the ability to get back in transition, the awareness of clogging passing lanes, the effectiveness at funneling offensive players into traffic — all these essential defensive qualities exist in abundance for Kentucky, which has become a team with a hard-nosed defense which communicates extremely well together.
It is easy and natural to think of a team which demonstrates harmony and synchronicity at the offensive end of the floor. “Five as one,” a symphony of ball movement and screens, right? This is a normal conceptualization of offense through decades upon decades of basketball. Yet, a flowing and integrated unit is just as real — and just as necessary — on defense. Hedging, trapping, fighting through screens, fronting, doubling — these and other defensive actions also have to be finely timed and coordinated. Kentucky’s offense might sometimes be ugly, but its defense hasn’t done much of anything wrong in recent weeks. It will be harder for an opponent to knock UK out of March Madness if the defense retains the very high standard it has set. Vanderbilt and then Florida both got the message about how vigorous Big Blue can be at the defensive end of the floor.
Just how imposing was Kentucky on Saturday? Just how good was this defense, precisely when the Wildcats were in real trouble, down 42-31 with roughly 13 minutes left? Florida scored just 12 points in those final 13 minutes. That was a better scoring pace than North Carolina State on Saturday against Virginia Tech… but not THAT much better. Spread over 40 minutes, that level of production would have netted the Gators only 36 points. Kentucky applied the clamps, and the Gators lost their bite.
It is impressive not only that Kentucky took a strong 28-minute punch from Florida. What’s even more praiseworthy about Saturday’s win is that Kentucky was down by 11 — a more-than-modest deficit — and decisively swatted it away. This wasn’t a miraculous “scramble” or a desperate late rally. This was a series of body blows steadily delivered over 13 minutes which gradually eroded an opponent’s patience and will… on the road.
Great teams eliminate deficits in that manner on the road. Kentucky continues to show the signs of being a great team.
The Cats don’t need to be defensive in relationship to any critics or anyone who might nitpick their flaws — not when they’re being so dominantly defensive on the basketball court, especially late in second halves.