LEXINGTON — Coach Matthew Mitchell blames largely himself for failing to adapt to offseason rules changes in the college game that have put a chink in the defensive armor of his Kentucky Wildcats.
This past summer, NCAA rules officials told their basketball officials to call games a lot tighter, to try to open up a sport that had become too physical and stagnant.
Mitchell said he did not realize how dramatically that emphasis would alter his team’s traditional trapping, in-your-face, full-court defensive pressure.
“I’m just typically wildly optimistic about things, and I just thought things we’re going to go great and we would actually be at an advantage,” said Mitchell, whose team takes a 22-7 record, a No. 4 seed and No. 12 national ranking into the Southeastern Conference Tournament this week in Duluth, Ga., just outside Atlanta.
Kentucky opens Friday at 2:30 against the winner of today’s Florida-Mississippi State game.
“I kept hearing people say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to back off, you’ve got to back off,’ and so we worked harder on our footwork, harder than we ever have, because we weren’t going to change,” Mitchell said.
The Wildcats backed up Mitchell’s optimism through an impressive 11-0 start that included wins over Baylor and Louisville.
But the Wildcats’ bubble started a slow leak in a 69-61 home loss to Duke Dec. 22; saw the hole widen with a 83-73 home loss to Florida Jan. 5, and then burst wide open with a devastating 81-58 loss to South Carolina Feb. 20.
Injuries played a role, too, particularly a knee injury to senior center DeNesha Stallworth, who missed nearly three weeks.
But the biggest change for Kentucky from the team’s two consecutive Elite Eight appearances was the Wildcats were not turning teams over like they’d become accustomed to.
Mitchell suggests officials have gone too far.
“My problem with it is that when we are in legal guarding position, and the offense runs into you and pushes you off or runs over you, it’s a defensive foul,” Mitchell said. “And so we don’t have a lot of bullets in our gun there as far as pressure. The kids can still pressure, but now they’re so concerned about it (being whistled for a foul).
“Maybe I’m just totally off base and don’t understand the rules, but I was very optimistic that we were still going to be able to play real extreme pressure defense and trap and press and all that,” he added. “And we just haven’t been able to do that, so we’re going to try to approach it from a different way going forward for this short period (post-season) of time.”
That’s a not so subtle hint that the Wildcats may play more zone defense going forward. That thought hit Mitchell over the head like a hammer during the 23-point home loss to South Carolina.
“We had been so up and down,” Mitchell said of his team’s defensive effectiveness. “But the South Carolina game ... (I knew) we HAD to do something different. We may see them in Atlanta (in Saturday’s semifinals), and we HAVE to play differently than we played them here.
“And that’s totally on me.”
The good news is Kentucky has responded very successfully from the dismal loss to USC, winning three straight since, including an 83-74 win at Texas A&M just three days after the loss to the Gamecocks.
“I think that shows a lot about our players and their character, and how hard they have worked,” Mitchell said. “They certainly have shown an ability to change. I’m really, really proud of this group.”
The SEC Tournament looks more wide open than it’s ever been, with No. 5 ranked South Carolina, the No. 1 SEC seed, meeting the Vanderbilt-Georgia winner Friday at noon; sixth-ranked Tennessee meeting the LSU-Alabama winner Friday at 6, and No. 15 rated Texas A&M clashing with the Auburn-Mississippi winner Friday night at 8:30.
If Kentucky wins Friday, the Wildcats will likely hook up with USC Saturday at noon.
The other semifinal is Friday at 2:30, with the championship game Sunday at 3:30.
The semifinals and final are on ESPNU.
“I just think we need to go down there with the attitude that we’re going to play together, and we’re going to play our best,” Mitchell said. “It’s a hard tournament to win. I’ve always said if you can win this tournament, you’ve identified yourself as a very, very good basketball team.”