Matthew Mitchell will lead his team into a rematch with Alabama at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It isn’t among Matthew Mitchell’s three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline, but man-to-man defense isn’t far down the list of things that have come to define UK Hoops.UK has ascended the ranks of women’s basketball utilizing man-to-man pressure defense, so much so that it’s earned the moniker “40 minutes of dread.” That’s what made the second half of Kentucky’s 73-71 win at Auburn on Sunday so surprising.Mitchell audibled to a zone defense, forgoing pride and his own long-standing philosophy.”I think it’s important as a coach to find a way for your players to be successful,” Mitchell said. “I think man-to-man defense is the way to play. I think that’s the best way to play, but I’m not out there playing and it’s not about me; it’s about the players.”Mitchell didn’t base that decision solely on what he saw during the first 20 minutes at Auburn either. At least statistically speaking, the UK defense has gone from dominant in 2012-13 to merely very good as the Cats (15-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) prepare to host Alabama (8-10, 1-4 SEC) on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. The Wildcats are allowing 68.4 points per game this season, up more than 10 points from last season’s average of 57.9. The increase is due in part to the faster tempo of UK’s games, but also to the 4.1 additional trips to the free-throw line opponents are making as the Cats toe the line between intense defense and fouling.Before the season, the new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play received plenty of attention on both the men’s and women’s side. Eighteen games in, Mitchell and his team are still adjusting.”If I’m in my space in a legal guarding position and the offense runs into me and I didn’t create the contact, I think that’s really what is giving us so much trouble,” Mitchell said. “Just trying to figure out what’s legal and what’s not. It says in the rulebook that they can’t create the contact and the foul will be on you. It has been difficult.”Unsure when the whistles are going to come, Mitchell says the Cats aren’t as sure of themselves on defense, creating a cycle of sorts.”You see that being one factor, but I think another factor is we could play a lot better, a lot harder,” Mitchell said. “We watched film on it yesterday and so that’s not all of it. It’s not all the new way the game is being called. A lot of it is on us too.”That psychological effect was on display against Auburn, as UK looked a different team defensively in the second half. “I don’t know if the way it’s being called is in our head and it just keeps us from really turning loose and playing because we were much more active and aggressive in the zone and played with the kind of energy that I wish we would play in man-to-man,” Mitchell said.Mitchell was particularly impressed with the way UK looked in that zone given the team had scarcely worked on it leading up to the game. In fact, he estimated the Cats played more zone in the game at Auburn than they had during their entire bye week in practice.Having seen the zone in action, Mitchell has made it more of a focus in practice this week.”We’re working on that more now, so it may become a big part of what we do,” Mitchell said. “I just don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out from a coaching standpoint right now.”That throws a wrench into Alabama’s preparation.The Cats and Crimson Tide faced off three weeks ago and UK came away with an 85-63 road victory, the only time in SEC play the Cats have avoided the slow starts and early deficits that have plagued them.”Alabama we got off to a great start and we got down to Florida, we got down to South Carolina, we got down to Missouri, we got down to Auburn,” Mitchell said. “And to me that is a mental focus issue and the coaches and the players, we all have to do a much better job preparing.”Looking at the Auburn game only, Mitchell is looking for his team to both learn from the slow start that put the Cats in a hole and gain confidence from the way they battled adversity to win a tough road game.”I just told the players we are just so proud of the part of the effort that got us the victory and we have to correct what got us into the situation where it looked so dire there for a while, 13 down in the first half,” Mitchell said. “So there are reasons that’s happening and those are the things that we have to correct.”Which defense UK uses to do that remains to be seen.”They have been very active in man and zone yesterday in practice, so we’ll practice both today and we’ll see what happens,” Mitchell said on Thursday.