Defense has UK on Final Four doorstep

NEWARK, N.J. -- About 20 minutes past midnight Saturday morning, right after watching his top-seeded Buckeyes have their national championship dreams snuffed out by No. 4 seed Kentucky, Ohio State coach Thad Matta sat on a dais in the bowels of the Prudential Center, looking appropriately dejected.

Matta, whose team had won 34 of its previous 36 games and was the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed, actually took offense when a reporter questioned whether Kentucky was "supposed to be here."

"Can I ask you a question? How the hell are they not supposed to be here?" Matta fired back.

Matta later apologized for the spicy retort, adding, "That's the best team we played this year."

When asked to elaborate, Matta responded, "Number one, their defense. Nobody talks about their defense."

While everyone was enthralled by Brandon Knight's right-wing dagger with 5.4 seconds remaining that turned out to be the game-winner Friday night, the key to the Wildcats playing for a spot in the Final Four on Sunday is -- drum roll, please -- defense.

(Something we don't see very much of in New York basketball, at least at the professional level.)

For all the talk about Kentucky's three high-scoring freshmen -- Knight (17.2 ppg), Terrence Jones (15.9 ppg) and Doron Lamb (12.4 ppg) -- it was the Wildcats' play at the other end of the floor that sent Ohio State packing. The Buckeyes came into Friday night's game the second-best shooting team in the country (49.9 percent), and the very best from 3-point range (42.4 percent).

Against Kentucky, Ohio State shot just 19-for-58 (32.8 percent), and 6-for-16 (37.5 percent) from deep.

Kentucky's season statistics are impressive on the offensive end: The Wildcats score 75.4 points per game (No. 33 in country) and shoot 46.2 percent from the field (No. 46).

But then you look at their defensive statistics, and you're doubly impressed -- holding opponents to 39.1 percent shooting (No. 10) and blocking 6.4 shots per game (No. 3).

These Wildcats are limiting teams to 63.5 points per game (No. 55). On their current nine-game winning streak, that number drops to 61.1.

"I've always believed in this team. I liked this team from the beginning," Kentucky coach John Calipari said during his off-day news conference Saturday. "What's happened the last nine games is, they're starting to believe in themselves and they're starting to believe in each other. So now you're seeing a swarming team that is covering for each other.

"We had 11 blocks [against Ohio State]. Are you kidding me? We had 11 blocks. Well, that's [players] coming from the weak side. It was perimeter players blocking shots.

"We're doing what we have to defensively. Sometimes we're doubling down, sometimes we're scrambling from the guard [spot], sometimes we're rotating and sometimes we're switching. But I just believe they're buying into defense first."

This team didn't buy in right away. The three freshmen all conceded Saturday that it was a big adjustment, focusing on defense as much as they've been asked to this season.

"In high school, there were some plays where you can take a play off -- you might not be going against the best player in high school. But on the college level, if you don't guard, you can be exposed," Knight said. "'Cause you're gonna be going against somebody that can play, each and every possession. So if they get the ball, and you're not playing defense, they're gonna go by you. And Coach is gonna call you out on it. So it was kind of a tough transition, just having to play every possession both ends of the court."

"[I'm playing] a lot harder," Jones said, "just because I don't wanna let my team down, and everyone is just trying to do it so we can win."

"High school was different -- you don't play that much defense," Lamb said. "With Coach Cal, you gotta play defense. He pushes you to be the best you can be. And if you don't play D, you ain't gonna play. So if you want to be on the court, you've got to play D."

"One of the things we say is, 'Defense first,'" Calipari said. "Because our skill level, shooting ability -- the offense will take care of itself. Defense first, rebound that ball, swarm and help each other. But it takes time. You know why? It‘s hard to get in there and be physical and stay in a stance and bounce the whole time throughout a whole possession.

"And especially for freshmen. Freshmen, when their man doesn't have the ball, normally just stop. The minute he passes it, 'I'm done.' And to get these guys to the point now where they're playing off the ball and bouncing, it's a tribute to them."

They're all playing defense now -- but No. 2 seed North Carolina, Kentucky's opponent in Sunday's regional final, presents a much different challenge than Ohio State. The Buckeyes had one dominant big man (Jared Sullinger), and four perimeter players -- senior big man Josh Harrellson handled Sullinger, and the guards shut down the shooters.

The Tar Heels, on the other hand, feature three imposing front-line players: 7-footer Tyler Zeller (27.3 ppg in tournament), 6-foot-10 John Henson (17.3 ppg), and 6-8 Harrison Barnes (22 ppg).

"Can we guard North Carolina? I'm telling you, North Carolina is going to be hard," Calipari said. "We're playing against an unbelievably talented, well-coached opponent, with great size, great guard skills, that shoots the ball. They just don't have a whole lot of weaknesses."

These teams met Dec. 4 in Chapel Hill and the Tar Heels emerged with a tight 75-73 victory. Both coaches said Saturday that you can basically throw that game out the window, since both teams have evolved so much since then. North Carolina has a new point guard in Kendall Marshall. Kentucky's freshmen have grown up, and bought in, on the defensive end.

They'll have to harness every ounce of energy they can to defend against those three North Carolina bigs -- but you can expect the effort to be there.

"They want to guard you, they realize how important it is," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

And if Brandon Knight has the ball in his hands in the closing seconds Sunday, with a chance to knock out Williams' team, you'll know the reason.