Facing Bellarmine’s offense is ‘like going to the dentist,’ but UK’s defense was ready

There’s likely not a more distinct offense in college basketball than the one run by the Bellarmine Knights.

Known as “the team that doesn’t dribble,” the Knights feature a deliberate and methodical offense that works the shot clock.

The 2022-23 version of Bellarmine is no different: Following Tuesday night’s game against Kentucky inside Rupp Arena, Bellarmine ranked No. 358 in the country (out of 363 Division I teams) in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.

On offense, Bellarmine also ranked 358th in the nation in average possession length, also per KenPom.

This is to say John Calipari’s UK team would need to be defensively disciplined against a team whose possessions frequently take more than 25 seconds to come to an end.

That’s exactly what the Wildcats were in an arduous 60-41 home win.

Kentucky limited Bellarmine to just 30.4% shooting from the field and 28.6% shooting on three-point attempts.

The 41 points scored by the Knights represented the lowest point output by a UK opponent since West Virginia scored 39 in a Sweet 16 game in 2015.

But above all the box score metrics, Calipari was pleased with the defensive focus that his team displayed for long stretches during each Bellarmine possession.

“Really good. Really good,” Calipari enthusiastically said when asked about his team’s defensive discipline to begin his postgame press conference. “Oscar (Tshiebwe) broke down, but he never has to play out on the floor like this. So, he broke down. We had about three other breakdowns, but when you think about it, like we were all over it, and it’s hard because we’re running and playing, too, and then you’re on defense for 30 seconds.”

“They all were laughing in there, like that was the hardest thing to guard,” Calipari continued. “We needed to show some discipline.

The Herald-Leader hand-tabulated each Bellarmine offensive possession that began with a fresh, 30-second shot clock.

There were 59 such possessions. Of those 59, 26 of them (more than 44%) saw Bellarmine still have possession of the ball with 10 seconds or less on the shot clock.

The Knights still had possession of the ball with five seconds or less on the shot clock in 15 of the 59 possessions (more than 25%).

The Wildcats forced the Knights into two shot-clock violations during Tuesday’s game and 12 turnovers overall, but it was the defensive effort that clearly pleased Calipari the most.

“It took unbelievable discipline to play the way we played it. … It takes unbelievable discipline throughout the possession for 40 minutes,” Calipari said. “I told the guys today, I told the staff, this is like going to the dentist.”

Kentucky forward Lance Ware (55) guards a Bellarmine player during Tuesday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky forward Lance Ware (55) guards a Bellarmine player during Tuesday’s game at Rupp Arena.

What was it like for UK’s players to be so mentally focused for lengthy periods on defense?

“It’s pretty difficult, it’s definitely tiring when it gets to that 10-second mark (in the shot clock),” senior transfer guard Antonio Reeves said postgame. “Their offensive set is different from any other college set. They definitely move the ball and all the cuts they do, it’s definitely difficult to guard out there and they use the whole shot clock.”

What about having to defend for such long stretches and then operate in a fast-paced offense?

“If we take a quick shot, it’s just going to be bad for us because we’ve got to go down there and stay in defense. … We don’t want to do that,” Reeves said, as Kentucky now ranks 36th in KenPom in average offensive possession length after Tuesday’s game. “We would rather just grind them out too, and try to get into their legs (on defense) as well.”

Leading into the contest against Bellarmine — who won the ASUN Conference Tournament last season but remains ineligible for NCAA postseason events while in a transition period as the Knights move from Division II to Division I — defense was a priority for the Wildcats.

It was stressed by Bruiser Flint, UK’s associate to the head coach, during a Monday morning meeting with reporters.

“I don’t want to say they hold the ball, but they’re going to work the shot clock,” Flint said. “Our discipline on defense, our communication on defense is going to be important, just because of the type of offense that they run.”

It was stressed by Calipari, less than 24 hours before the game, on his weekly radio show.

And it surely came up during Kentucky’s break in between games, as UK enjoyed a prolonged period of practice time coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Bellarmine’s Juston Betz (1) drives to the basket against Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler during Tuesday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Bellarmine’s Juston Betz (1) drives to the basket against Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler during Tuesday’s game at Rupp Arena.

The Wildcats even began working on a basic zone defense over the weekend, a potential emergency option for Calipari to use in SEC or postseason play.

While the Wildcats have been slipping in the latest NCAA Tournament Bracketology projections, it’s no secret what the most likely outcome is for this Kentucky team: A high seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a first-round matchup against a small-school automatic qualifier.

Sound familiar?

There’s a strong chance that whomever that team is, distinct offensive quirks will be a standout part of its identity, and Kentucky will need to game plan against it in a short period of time, and follow through with execution.

In that sense, Tuesday night’s showing against Bellarmine can be seen as a significant step forward for Kentucky.

“Normally, teams don’t do that to other teams,” Reeves said. “You’ve got to come together as a team and build off each other’s energy out there and talk, communicate.”

Bellarmine well-tested by its schedule

The most noteworthy characteristics about Bellarmine basketball were all on display Tuesday night:

An active offense predicated on cutting and passing that swallows the shot clock, the willingness to play an overwhelmingly difficult non-conference schedule with road games against college basketball’s best programs and even the Knights’ inability to play in the NCAA postseason (something discussed postgame by both Calipari and Bellarmine head coach Scott Davenport).

This was Bellarmine’s fifth road game this season against a Power Five opponent: Louisville, Clemson, Duke, UCLA and Kentucky have all been visited by the Knights.

According to the game-time odds listed by Caesars Sportsbook, Bellarmine has covered the spread against all five opponents.

Three of these games — road trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke), Pauley Pavilion (UCLA) and Rupp Arena (Kentucky) — have all occurred in the last nine days.

How have these elite programs reacted to Bellarmine’s challenging offensive style?

“The response from the teams and coaches has been that we are very hard and frustrating to guard and that is exactly what we are trying to do on offense,” Bellarmine graduate student guard Juston Betz said. “We want to take up all 30 seconds of the shot clock and make them guard the entire time. They are great teams and we are at a disadvantage athletically against teams like this, but it does prove to us our offense can work against them, as well.”

“We can’t simulate (UK’s) size and their athleticism, and a lot of teams can’t see how we play offense, so it takes them time to adjust,” Betz added. “It gives us a lot of confidence that our offense can be successful.”