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High-scoring Kentucky aims to prove during March Madness that it also defends, despite the stats

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky certainly has the offense to make its deepest NCAA Tournament run in five years.

The third-seeded Wildcats (25-9) start March Madness ranked second nationally to Southeastern Conference brethren Alabama at 89.4 points per game. Kentucky had six 100-point performances this season and any one or more of its regulars can erupt for a career-best scoring effort on any given day.

Whether Kentucky’s glowing stats can offset defensive concerns that have allowed opponents to hang around at times is the biggest question as it prepares for the NCAA Tournament. Though coach John Calipari emphatically declared this week that his team is “built for March,” he also suggested “tweaks” to the structure to create more defensive stops in Thursday’s South Region first-round game against No. 14 Oakland (23-11) in Pittsburgh.

“If a team has guards that just break us down, what? What else can we do?” he said Sunday. “How about if I put both 7-footers in? They may take away a little offense. But, now you got two 7-footers (making it) a little harder to score at the rim. So, there’s some different things we can do.”

Kentucky’s quick exit from the SEC Tournament demonstrated there’s room for improvement in all phases.

Texas A&M matched Kentucky with 11 3-pointers, outrebounded the Wildcats 38-34 and outscored them 36-30 in the paint. Most notably, an Aggies team that entered the postseason averaging just 73.4 points per game won 97-87 and matched the point total that won both of their meetings this season.

“This minor setback is going to motivate a lot of dudes to play that much harder come the tournament,” fifth-year senior forward Trey Mitchell said afterward.

Though Kentucky enters March Madness allowing 79.7 points per contest and rank tied for 334th of 351 Division I teams, there are encouraging signs. The Wildcats stand third nationally with 6.3 blocks and 64th with 7.7 steals while standout freshman guard Reed Sheppard ranks eighth individually with 2.5 steals per game.

They’re also healthy and at full strength, with leading rebounder Mitchell (7.0) playing the last few games after missing four because of a back injury. While their SEC Tournament stay was short, players viewed the five preceding wins — including a key victory at then-No. 4 Tennessee — as progress in making stops.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” sophomore 7-footer Ugonna Onyenso (61 blocks) said last week, “but this is the time of year when we’re starting to lock in what we do, whether it’s what we do on offense or defense.

“Everybody’s cracking down, everybody’s busting out, everybody’s doing what they do on defense. And that’s what’s going to help us in this tournament.”

Kentucky faces a Golden Grizzlies team riding an 8-1 surge including four consecutive wins. The Horizon League champions average 76.4 points per game and are making 35% from behind the arc. Senior forward Trey Townsend (16.9 points) leads four players averaging in double figures.

A favorable bracket offers Kentucky a chance to reach its first Sweet 16 since making the regional final in 2019. The Wildcats come in as one of the nation’s most entertaining offensive teams, with fifth-year senior Antonio Reeves leading a fast, deep backcourt that can score from any spot.

Kentucky also has shown good instincts on defense, with Sheppard, Rob Dillingham, D.J. Wagner and Adou Thiero making timely steals. It faces multiple tasks now, such as improving on pick-and-rolls, guarding the perimeter and protecting the rim.

Doing those things can create opportunities the Wildcats hope can end well.

Asked what it means to lock in and where, Dillingham said, “Just understanding where we’re at and what you’ve had to go through to get there. … I’d say (it’s) the defensive end for us, but the whole game, honestly.

“Every time we’ve lost we’ve always come back with a bang. A loss isn’t going to hurt our confidence.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness