LSU HC Matt McMahon credits ‘fantastic’ Kentucky team for recent defensive improvements

At this stage in the season, every SEC coach knows just how explosive Kentucky’s offense can be. The Wildcats rank eighth in overall adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, and shoot lights out from deep. Combine that with constant fastbreak attacks and minimal turnovers, and you’ve got a recipe for an effective, high-powered offense. Kentucky is currently third in the country in points per game at 88.2.

If LSU, which hosts UK tonight at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, wants to pull off the intraconference upset, the Tigers might need a near-perfect defensive performance.

“Obviously Kentucky coming off an incredible performance on Saturday at Auburn,” LSU head coach Matt McMahon said on Tuesday. “Both ends of the court, offensively and defensively. Really talented team, third leading scoring team in the country, lead the country in three-point percentage, their assist-to-turnover ratio is almost two to one. I just think they’re fantastic. It’s a great opportunity for us tomorrow night… They’re an elite shooting team.”

LSU, now in year two of the McMahon era, is a respectable offensive team, but nothing compared to Kentucky. The Tigers average 77.8 points per game against SEC competition, good enough for sixth in the league. It’s the other end of the floor where LSU has struggled as of late, allowing the opposition to average 80.1 points per game in the SEC. They gave up 88 points to Tennessee and 109 to Alabama in back-to-back outings earlier this month. Don’t be surprised if Kentucky drops 90-plus.

But in an unexpected twist, it’s been Kentucky’s defense over the last couple of games that now has opposing coaches worried. In a pair of wins last week, the Wildcats gave up 63 and 59 points against Ole Miss and Auburn, respectively, while holding those two to a combined shooting percentage of 34.2.

Kentucky as a whole has locked in on defense. Roles are more clearly defined. Missed shots lead to leak-out opportunities for the ‘Cats, which thrives in transition.

“They have unbelievable speed,” McMahon said. “Their guards are so explosive off the dribble, they change ends of the floor quickly. I think a big part of that is you can’t turn the ball over and you definitely can’t take bad shots cause they make you pay every time. The other thing they’ve done a great job of: top five in the country in blocked shots, which also fuels their transition attack. I think it’s a combination of the discipline and the effort you have to play with defensively to get back and set your defense and then being smart on the offensive end, to value the ball, and get high-quality shots.”

From McMahon’s viewpoint, he can point to two factors that have helped Kentucky’s defense make a leap. The first is the return of starting point guard DJ Wagner to the lineup and the intensity he brings to both ends of the floor. The second is big man Ugonna Onyenso solidifying the starting center role, which gives UK a shot-blocking presence for nearly the entire game.

“I would just put on the first possession of the game at Auburn and watch DJ Wagner’s defense on the ball. Thought that set the tone for the game for them,” McMahon said about what has changed for Kentucky on defense. “So getting him back in the lineup, his ball pressure was terrific on Saturday. And then they have an anchor in the back of their defense now. (Onyenso), I mean, 10 blocks against Ole Miss, he’s cleaning the glass, Saturday had a tremendous impact on the back line of their defense. You look at their performance on that end of the court against Ole Miss and then obviously Saturday at Auburn, and it was really good. So credit to them for the improvements they made there.”

Tipoff between LSU and No. 17 Kentucky in Baton Rouge is set for 9:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.


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