Kentucky began the 2023-24 season ranked 16th in the AP Top 25 Poll — another way of saying that voters had no idea what to make of the Wildcats. The team, led by All-American center Oscar Tshiebwe, earned a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Second Round before falling to Kansas State.

Tshiebwe left for the NBA along with point guard Cason Wallace, meanwhile, Kentucky returned second-leading scorer Antonio Reeves — pairing him with another star big man in Tre Mitchell as well as a promising group of freshman talent. The Wildcats rebranded as a three-point shooting offensive juggernaut, sacrificing defense and physicality down low with some of the most accurate shooting in the country.

While there is reason for excitement for Kentucky Wildcat fans come March, these defensive deficiencies could end up costing John Calipari and the Wildcats a trip to the Final Four.

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari breathing fire

Defensive struggles

It does not an expert to figure this one out. The Wildcats are eighth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom yet are 77 in defensive efficiency. Five of Kentucky's six losses in SEC play have come in games where UK gave up at least 1.1 points per possession. This includes 103 points allowed in 74 possessions (1.39 PPP) in a loss to Tennessee and a defensive efficiency of 112.7 (second-worst behind the Tennessee defeat) in an 89-85 defeat to Gonzaga. Both of those games happened at Rupp Arena.

After the Gonzaga defeat, the Wildcats seemed to have turned the corner. Kentucky held Ole Miss and Auburn to just 0.85 PPP, snapping a three-game home losing streak and giving UK a pair of much-needed wins in SEC play. The Wildcats were especially effective with their three-point defense, as Ole Miss and Auburn shot just 9-44 from deep during those contests.

But a more familiar Kentucky has begun to re-emerge. John Calipari's team allowed LSU to shoot 9-20 from beyond the arc in a surprising road defeat. Then, the Wildcats allowed 95 points on 80 possessions (1.19 PPP) against Alabama. Kentucky beat Bama by scoring 117 and many of the points UK gave up came in garbage time, but this team will face much tougher defenses than Alabama (97th in KenPom) come March.

Even when opponents are not shooting lights out, Kentucky's poor defensive rebounding gives opponents far too many second-chance opportunities. This weakness is surprising considering that John Calipari employs a trio of seven-footers and the team ranks third in the country in block rate on defense. In the Tennessee game, the Wildcats allowed the Volunteers to grab offensive rebounds on 42.9% of misses. Against Gonzaga, that number rose to 48.6% — a major reason the Zags scored 89 points despite shooting 4-18 from beyond the arc. An early January loss to Texas A&M also saw Coach Calipari's squad allow offensive rebounds on more than 40% of the opponents' misses.

With Oscar Tshiebwe gone, Kentucky is giving up 20% more offensive rebounds and is allowing four points more per 100 possessions versus last year. During conference play, this team ranks 299th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. Five of UK's last six losses came to teams that are in the top 75 in offensive rebounding rate as it gave up an average of 18 offensive rebounds per game in those contests.

While the Wildcats offer a much-improved offense and the best three-point shooting in the nation (41%), this tradeoff leaves Kentucky unbalanced and much more vulnerable to being upset come March Madness.