The biggest test of Kentucky’s basketball season is here. How will these Cats respond?

Kentucky basketball took a step backward Wednesday night.

The Wildcats’ defense, however — and difficult as it might be to accept — took another incremental step in the right direction in UK’s buzzer-beating 75-74 loss at LSU, the third consecutive game in which the Cats have improved their efficiency numbers.

There were certainly breakdowns in that loss to the Tigers — there always will be, especially with a team this young — and while Kentucky’s defensive performance was not as impressive as it was in the previous wins over Auburn and Ole Miss, the Cats did look better than they had earlier in conference play.

The numbers backed that up. UK enjoyed another slight rise — from No. 81 to No. 77 — in the KenPom defensive efficiency ratings following the LSU game, and the Wildcats have now jumped nearly 50 spots in those rankings since an 89-85 loss to Gonzaga two weeks ago.

Next up: the biggest test of the season for this Kentucky defense, and it should be a good measure for where these Cats are headed with tournament time just around the corner.

No. 13 Alabama comes to Lexington on Saturday afternoon, and Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide boasts the No. 1 offense in all of college basketball. Bama tops those KenPom offensive efficiency ratings by a comfortable margin — UK dropped to ninth on that list post-LSU — and the Tide have the nation’s top scoring offense with 91.0 points per game. (The Cats are third on that list.)

Following Kentucky’s 70-59 win at Auburn last weekend, starting center Ugonna Onyenso made an interesting comment regarding the team’s defensive outlook.

“We can do it as a team. If we really want to do it,” he said. “… Again, people said what they said online. People said we’re bad defensively. So we came together as one. We can’t let people say things like that about us, about our defense. So I loved the energy on defense. It’s all about playing as one. Everybody did their job.”

The Auburn game — against a top-10 offense nationally — showed what this UK team is capable of defensively on any given night. Four days before that, Onyenso blocked a Rupp Arena record 10 shots to help lead the Cats past Ole Miss in another solid defensive effort.

And before that, Kentucky was indeed bad on that side of that ball. The Cats had fallen into the 120s nationally in defensive efficiency, and the online talk that Onyenso and others in UK’s orbit took issue with was warranted. But the fact that these Cats did take offense — and continue to work toward fixing their shortcomings — is an encouraging sign.

“I think they’re developing a pride in their defense,” UK assistant coach John Welch said this week. “And they work hard at it. And, yeah, I think they took it personal — what was being said about them. And, especially Ugo, because he’s such a good defensive player. And his rim protection makes such a big difference for us.”

Adou Thiero (3) blocks a shot by LSU’s Jalen Reed (13) on Wednesday, one of Thiero’s four blocks on the night. The Wildcats’ defense must contend with the nation’s top-rated offense when Alabama visits on Saturday.
Adou Thiero (3) blocks a shot by LSU’s Jalen Reed (13) on Wednesday, one of Thiero’s four blocks on the night. The Wildcats’ defense must contend with the nation’s top-rated offense when Alabama visits on Saturday.

Onyenso’s emergence as a true rim-protecting threat coupled with the young UK guards’ intense pressure on ball-handlers and improvements in ball-screen coverage have made these Wildcats a better defensive bunch. But the LSU game showed there’s still a ways to go, even if it was incrementally better than some past Kentucky efforts.

John Calipari expressed surprise that — after Onyenso’s performance against Ole Miss — Auburn didn’t try to pull him away from the basket more. “But they didn’t,” he said. Onyenso got only two blocks in that game, but his mere presence at the rim made the Tigers switch up their approach at times.

D.J. Wagner’s smothering on-ball defense was also on display in those two games last week, the 18-year-old freshman hounding ball-handlers into rushed decisions that led to turnovers.

“How ’bout D.J. Wagner the last two games, on the ball, how he played? It was crazy,” Calipari said on his radio show this week. “He was, defensively, like off the charts. How did he play in pick and rolls? We haven’t changed anything. ‘You changed coverage.’ No. We didn’t. It’s just that they need more training and more training and more process and more process. It’s how it is.”

On Wednesday night, the Tigers were able to pull Onyenso out of his comfort zone — stretching him away from the basket at times — and Wagner wasn’t as effective on the ball as he had been in the two previous games. The freshman guard also had the first zero-point game of his college career, missing all five shots in 21 minutes and looking generally out of sorts. Calipari has said the ankle injury Wagner has been battling since November has affected his offense in recent weeks, and it’s worth wondering how much that’s hampering him overall.

Kentucky’s coach also decried his team’s inability to get to 50/50 balls against LSU, particularly in the second half, when the Tigers fought back from a 15-point deficit by simply outhustling the Wildcats down the stretch. “We reverted a little bit today,” Calipari said.

The promise is still there, but, so far, it’s been continually drowned out by the inconsistency of these Cats, and the end of the regular season is drawing nearer.

The Alabama game Saturday afternoon will provide the biggest test yet for UK’s defense, and how those 40 minutes go should be a late-season indicator of just where the Wildcats are with only four additional games remaining until the SEC Tournament.

The Crimson Tide’s offensive numbers this season speak for themselves. They like to play at a quick pace — 12th nationally in adjusted tempo with the third-shortest time of possession in the country — and they’re highly efficient from all over the court, ranking in the top 15 in 2-point, 3-point and free throw percentage. Bama is also No. 2 nationally (behind North Florida) with 11.7 made 3-pointers per game.

In last season’s game, the Tide exposed UK big man Oscar Tshiebwe in ball-screen situations, getting him out of position so often that the reigning national player of the year was actually benched in an embarrassing 78-52 rout. Tshiebwe took the brunt of the criticism in that one, but Bama’s approach was an overall indictment of that UK team’s defense as a whole.

Oats and his electric offense — headlined by SEC leading scorer Mark Sears — will surely throw different looks at Kentucky again this weekend, picking at the various flaws the Cats have shown all season long.

If UK’s players have, in fact, developed a collective chip on their shoulder regarding their much-maligned defense, now’s the time to show it.

“They’re getting better. They’re feeling it,” Calipari said Monday night. “They’re so good to each other. They celebrate each other. We’ve got a couple of guys — I was telling them today — ‘Have a great practice. It will lead to a great game.’ And most of it is, just be physical. The other stuff happens. Be a great defender. Talk. The other stuff will happen. And they’re buying in.”

Saturday

No. 13 Alabama at No. 17 Kentucky

When: 4 p.m.

TV: CBS-27

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Alabama 19-7 (11-2 SEC), Kentucky 18-8 (8-5)

Series: Kentucky leads 116-41

Last meeting: Alabama won 78-52 on Jan. 7, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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