CLEVELAND – Kentucky is a non-denominational basketball program, but it has its commandments. One of them addresses the area 249 inches from the rim. This is to be, at all times, a wasteland, a barren and hopeless expanse. In the event that there is a sign of life out there, the party responsible for it will be removed in favor of someone else who will extinguish it.
“At the beginning of the year, we talked about sins,” Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison said. “And that’s one of the sins on our team, to give up threes.”
They have been devout in this, to say the least. Of the many amazing things the best team in the country does to produce the best defense in the country, the ability to suffocate opposing three-point shooters is perhaps the most impressive, particularly because 7-foot goliaths regularly do the closing out. Teams have shot just 26.7% from long range against Kentucky, the second-lowest rate nationally, and a similar performance will be imperative to snuffing out Notre Dame’s offense and its upset intentions in Saturday's Midwest Regional final.
Should the undefeated Wildcats demonstrate their usual defensive piety, pity the Irish, a top-20 three-point shooting team whose only chance may be a literal long shot.
Of the 826 jumpers opponents have taken against Kentucky this year, 62.3% have been three-pointers, per Synergy Sports Data. Of all the catch-and-shoot jumpers by opponents in a half-court setting, only 31.8% have been unguarded. A Wildcats backcourt featuring three 6’6” rotation players does a lot to eliminate good looks. But 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, 6’10” Trey Lyles and 6’9” Marcus Lee often rush out to the line too.
“They’re really great on their feet,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “It’s the best set of bigs that can really close out and be balanced. They move, they recover—they almost close out like guards. They really do. They’re freaks athletically.”
It is not an easy task to fathom. Players accustomed to claustrophobic battles in the lane must also be able to confront and then contain much smaller opponents in space. But the demand for that is unrelenting, because John Calipari’s belief that his players can do it is uncompromising.
During practices, Calipari will watch a proper close-out from one of his towering frontcourt players and blow a whistle—in approval. “You’re proving right now you can do this,” the Wildcats coach said of the message he tries to send in these moments. “‘But it’s really hard.’ Yeah, no kidding. What we’re doing is very hard, or everybody would be doing this.”
In terms of point-per-possession defense in spot-up scenarios, Cauley-Stein, Lyles and Lee all rank in the 87th percentile or better nationally. (Karl-Anthony Towns, who stands 6'11" and 7-foot Dakari Johnson are the two big men rarely thrust into such situations, playing spot-up defense just 6.7% and 5.8% of the time, respectively.) Their ability to vanquish three-point effectiveness begins by identifying prime shooting threats. From there, the approach is fairly uncomplicated. In the view of Notre Dame assistant coach Martin Ingelsby, Kentucky doesn’t overextend its big men on the perimeter, which precludes them from chasing ball-handlers and allows them to blot out the offensive player's view. Then their footwork and athleticism take over. “You just have to stay low and move your feet and try to keep the little guy in front of you,” Lyles said.
As long as that happens, an opponent’s long-range forecast is usually cloudy.
“If they don’t tip it, they’re altering the shot,” said Kentucky guard Devin Booker, who regularly attempts to shoot over them in practice. “It’s really tough.”
Notre Dame's offense ranks third nationally in kenpom.com’s efficiency ratings. During one second-half stretch in the Sweet 16 against Wichita State, the Irish made 17 of 20 shots, including six three-pointers, to supercharge an 81-70 win that sent them to their first Elite Eight since 1979. In its last six games, Notre Dame has twice hit nine three-pointers and had another outing in which it sank 10. This is an undersized team—6’5” forward Pat Connaughton is the leading rebounder at 7.4 boards per game—but it can crank up its attack to a level Kentucky has not seen this year.
But neither have the Irish seen anything like Kentucky. So at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday, Notre Dames players and coaches talked about turning pump fakes into one-dribble jumpers. They talked about eliminating all hesitation and firing away “if there’s a little bit of daylight,” in the words of forward V.J. Beachem. They talked about prioritizing movement and efficiency on the perimeter. “We've got to try to stir them up, change sides of the floor, and we gotta make shots,” Ingelsby said. “You cannot challenge them at the rim. You have to make shots to beat them.”
They have the good intentions a lot of Kentucky's opponents have had. It has been a successful formula for the Fighting Irish all season. Why change it now?
The thing is, when the Irish size up a shot on Saturday night, and a giant races toward them and stretches his arm out to the sky, they may come to realize it’s not up to them.