From the moment that John Calipari first touched down in Lexington, Kentucky during the spring of 2009, the University of Kentucky has been regarded as arguably the most star-studded university in college basketball. A small glimpse at the alumni in the John Calipari-era and you can quickly see some of the top young players in the NBA.
Within those eight years, current NBA studs like DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, John Wall and Devin Booker have all had the opportunity to play with Kentucky under Calipari.
That crop of talented players have pushed Kentucky to the level of success that would make any other NCAA team blush. During Calipari’s eight years with the team, Kentucky has made four Final Four appearances, that most appearances of any NCAA team during that time. The influx of McDonald’s All-Americans might have a lot to do with that success, there’s still been one trend that’s lasted throughout Calipari’s time with Kentucky: terrific point guards
Starting with John Wall during Calipari’s debut season with Kentucky, the Wildcats has always featured point guards that can effectively lead the team’s talented crop of players. While it isn’t a surprise that Calipari is able to bring in great point guards, it is intriguing to see the type of players that the team brings in to play that position. From John Wall to Tyler Ulis, Kentucky has featured pass-first point guards that can excel on the defensive end.
Talented point guards be the first line of defense for the Wildcats has been a huge factor behind them one of the best defensive teams in the country on a year-by-year basis. A perfect example of that was seen last year with how Kentucky’s defense helped push the opposition to maintain an abysmal 44.5% efG% (Effective Field Goal Percentage), the 7th lowest average in college basketball.
Tyler Ulis had a lot to do with that defensive success as the 5’10 guard used tenacity and great defensive instincts to force the opposition to take shots from around the rim or beyond the arc. Ulis’ play on the end of the floor pushed him to be the first point guard to be named as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
As Ulis headed to the NBA to join the Phoenix Suns, Calipari quickly found a point guard willing to fill in those footsteps. That replacement came with the addition of De’Aaron Fox, a 6’3 point guard that dominated the high school basketball scene through his awe-inspiring work on the defensive end. As we explained in a late-October piece, Fox looked more like Kentucky alum John Wall than an elite high schooler with the way he combines terrific defensive fundamentals with the amount of energy that would wear out the “Energizer Bunny”.
That same praise is still extremely relevant when we make the transition into his play with the Kentucky Wildcats. From the moment that he first laced up his sneakers at Rupp Arena, Fox took over as the captain of Kentucky’s defense.
Whenever the Wildcats line up to start their defensive possession, Fox stands as that first barrier that every opposing team has to battle their way through. Although he spends most of his time focusing on the man bringing the ball up the court, Fox is also comfortable with venturing out and working as a free safety.
While that approach may not be to Calipari’s liking, Fox does a good job when he’s just trolling around the court. Within that process, Fox does a great job of reading the passing lanes which allows him to force the steals that most other college guards can’t make. Those skills has pushed Fox to be one of the best ball-hawks in the SEC as he’s currently averaging 2.2 steals per 40 minutes. An example of Fox’s work on the defensive end is shown in the play below where Fox is just able to snatch the opposing pass right out of midair.
Fox still stands as a fearless defender when he decides to guard the opposing ball-handler rather than working as a free safety. As an on-ball defender, Fox loves to just get into the face of the opposing ball-handler which really prevents them from getting any breathing room.
His ability to stick onto an opponent like velcro is still evident whether the opposing guard is working around an off-ball screen or driving to the paint. While his tenacity is an incredibly fun thing to watch, it’s more impressive to know that he’s able to do this while only averaging 3 fouls per 40 minutes. That average actually stands as one of the lowest among SEC point guards.
Fox’s knack of being an aggressive defender without getting in regular foul trouble has a lot to do with body control and great footwork. Those two traits are evident in the play below as Fox is able to stick to the Louisville cutter from the perimeter to the paint for the opposition gets called for a travel.
With the Kentucky Wildcats starting to close in on the conference tournament and March Madness, the team sits in a very familiar spot: at the top of the SEC. Currently, the Wildcats maintain a 17-4 record which puts them 6th in the USA Today’s Coaching Poll. A good portion of that success pertains to Calipari’s coaching and Kentucky’s star-studded roster. However, it probably wouldn’t too big of a stretch to say that Fox’s work on the defensive end had a decent part to do with their success.
That praise is due to Fox pushing the Wildcats to have one of the finest perimeter defenses in college basketball. According to KenPom, opposing teams shot just 31% from beyond the arc against the Kentucky Wildcats. That’s a massive difference from the 35% that currently sits as the NCAA-average. It would be safe to say that Fox’s work as a defensive free safety or tenacious on-ball defender had something to do with that inefficient percentage.
If De’Aaron Fox can maintain that level of defense as we near the NCAA tournament, there’s a solid chance that he vault himself up NBA Draft boards. While there may be flashier or more offensively dynamic prospects, there really isn’t many players out there that can do what Fox can on the defensive end.