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Offensive numbers killing defensive chances

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DSC_7452.jpgThe one key behind Craig Skinner and the Kentucky volleyball team's rise to prominence over the last five years has been defense.

It was no coincidence that as UK climbed the national and Southeastern Conference ladder, so did its blocking numbers. During UK's record-setting fourth straight NCAA appearance run last year, UK ranked seventh in the nation in blocks.

Defense has been a Skinner staple. To win you need to play defense, and to play defense means to win.

Yet, in his fifth year at the helm of the wildly successful volleyball program, Skinner's team has seen a pretty significant drop in blocks per game. The Cats are raking in blocks at a 2.34 pace, which has dropped UK from seventh in the country in blocking last year to 59th this season.

Those numbers would indicate UK has taken a step back in Skinner's fifth season at UK, only it hasn't. In a stark contradiction, the Cats have actually taken their game to the next level, grabbing the outright SEC lead midway through the conference schedule. At 19-1, Skinner's team is tied for the best 20-game start in program history.

The question is how does a team's trademark decrease but its win total increase? It doesn't make sense. That is, until you start to look at how dominant the Cats have been on the offensive end.

UK ranks in the top 10 in the nation in three of the most important offensive categories. The Cats rank seventh in hitting percentage (.292), eighth in assists (13.62) and eighth in kills (14.71). All three are tops in the rugged SEC.

Truthfully, the Cats, who face Tennessee on Wednesday at 7 p.m. inside Memorial Coliseum, have been so good on offense that they haven't had as many opportunities to play defense.

"It might have an effect," Skinner said. "If we have more kills per set, then we probably have fewer chances to block when we receive the serves. I still think we need to get better at blocking and finish our blocks so that we score points with our block defense, but I do think we're actually a very good defensive team. Whether our stats indicate that or not, I know that it's very hard for teams to get kills against us. Each team you have to kind of adapt to what the strengths are, and one of our strengths is being efficient offensively."

Efficient is one way to describe the offensive juggernaut, but how about dominant?

En route to a No. 7 national ranking and half-game lead in the SEC, UK has buried its opponents with an uncanny frequency. In 20 matches this season, the Cats have swept their opponents 11 times, including a 3-0 romp over second-place LSU in Baton Rouge, La. If you're looking for a reason for the supremacy, look no further than the offensive end.

"To be able to do that you have to have good ball control and good setting and people who can hit the ball hard enough to terminate it," Skinner said. "More kills raises your hitting percentage and less errors raises your hitting percentage."

Numbers aside, UK has more weapons than ever. If you follow the volleyball team, you know about its stars Sarah Rumely and Sarah Mendoza. But the difference this year is the people around them.

Whether its attack percentage leader Gretchen Giesler, the punishing kills from Blaire Hiler, or the consistency from veterans Lauren Rapp, Becky Pavan and Ann Armes, UK just has more pieces to the puzzle. Five different players this year have recorded a career high in kills.

"It's people that are older now, that are stronger now and it also has to do with our ball control and setting," Skinner said. "If you shank the ball off the court, you're going to have a hard time getting kills. If you're passing it to the net, then obviously Rumely has a lot more chances."

Of course, Rumely, who ranks second on the school's all-time assists chart, has been the constant cog behind UK's attack. The reigning SEC Player of the year is distributing the ball better than ever.

Skinner credits her instincts and experience for yet another banner year.

"Sarah has a great feel for who is available at the right time," he said. "It's like a quarterback when they drop back to pass. They obviously want to throw it to the receiver that's open and not the one that is covered by the defensive back. It's the same with volleyball. You want her to set it up to the hitter that might have one blocker versus two."

"It's experience and being in those situations over the course of time and it's also instincts. She has a great instinctive feeling of who to set."

It's almost hard not to find someone to set on this team of offensive specialists.

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