Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky (#2)


Immanuel Quickley has “turned the corner.” Has anyone else?

The first time out at TBA against this Kentucky squad, I actually liked most of what Tennessee tried to do defensively. The Kats lost the turnover battle, Tennessee won the rebounding percentage game, and Kentucky was forced into taking 15 non-rim twos. Unfortunately, Kentucky has Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, and Nick Richards; Tennessee simply does not have players of that caliber at this time. Anyway, this is still largely the same unit with largely the same successes and failures that came to town just under a month ago.

On the season as a whole, Torvik has Kentucky’s offense ranked 31st; in the last ten games, it ranks 32nd. Again, basically the same it’s been for most of the season minus the obvious blips (Evansville) on (Utah) the radar (Ole Miss, almost). Only three teams in America get fewer of their points from the three-point line than Kentucky does. It’s just simply not what they do, and while Immanuel Quickley is striving to fit the bill of “elite shooter that gets Kentucky over the top,” it remains to be seen whether Quickley’s 47.1% hit rate in conference play is a mark of a truly great shooter or simply a run of good play from a guy who’s otherwise shot 34.3% from downtown in his career.

Speaking of Quickley, he gets first run in this preview. Prior to the Tennessee game, I thought Quickley was a pretty good player who nonetheless hadn’t quite hit the heights many had expected of him at Kentucky. That has indeed changed: from the Auburn loss on February 1 onwards, Quickley is averaging 21.3 PPG on a 53.4% eFG%.

I still find it more than a bit alarming that in this run of play, he’s shot better from three (46.2%) than two (40.9%), but it’s a remarkable stretch regardless. Kentucky runs a variety of looks for Quickley – the traditional clear-out from ball-screen sets and off-ball screens, mostly.

Quickley’s not much of a guy to get to the rim, as four players have more rim attempts than he does. Instead, he settles for longer twos, which don’t go as well for him as the threes.

Per, Kentucky goes from having the second-best offense in the SEC to the second-worst when Quickley leaves the floor, and he barely has over the last month because of this.

Nick Richards still rocks

While I remain unsold on Kentucky’s long-term prospects in March/April, I do feel sold on Nick Richards.

Across his first two seasons, Richards was a fine role player that simply couldn’t stay on the court due to endless foul issues. Those issues still exist (4.3 fouls per 40), but are much less prominent. Couple that with an absurd 87.7% hit rate at the rim and you get why he’s such a key piece.

Against Auburn on Saturday, Richards got into foul trouble almost immediately and only got to play 19 minutes. In those 19 minutes, though, Kentucky outscored Auburn by 5 in the time Richards was on the court, and he was massive in the second half when Kentucky couldn’t get much to go down: 10 points, three rebounds, and a pair of blocks.

Tyrese Maxey: lottery pick?

Tyrese Maxey is likely going to be a lottery pick, though like every other freshman in basketball not named Onyeka Okongwu, he’s had a somewhat disappointing season. Maxey remains a terribly weak three-point shooter (30-of-106, 28.3%):

And he hasn’t showed much consistency away from the rim at all. He’s much better at driving to the rim and forcing the issue, especially when he’s able to draw fouls.

Ashton Hagans may be the perfect good bad player

Ashton Hagans is the point guard; you remember him from last year. Hagans still is far from a shooter, but he remains an excellent driver of the offense.

Not only does he score at the rim, he gets fouled often. His ability to draw gravity ends up producing some pretty good assists, too. Hagans is a strange matchup; he’s not particularly efficient, he’s not a good shooter, and he turns it over way too often…

But he’s undeniably a great passer and a serious threat.

Other offensive players of note

Other guys you need to know: Nate Sestina has been a little bit better since we last saw him. He’s up to 40.4% from three and has proven to be a pretty useful piece when needed.

E.J. Montgomery still can’t do a ton away from the rim, but he is undeniably effective at the rim.

Keion Brooks, Jr., same thing, though more extreme.

Johnny Juzang, by necessity, has had to play more lately. He’s the worst player in the rotation if I had to name one, but he did go a perfect 3-for-3 from deep against Tennessee (7-for-34 against everyone else), so who knows.

I still don’t get why this defense isn’t elite

Last time out, I noted that Kentucky’s defense still had a lot of work to do to be on the level of Calipari’s other great defenses. They did hold Tennessee to 1.006 PPP, a fine-ish outing, but this still feels like a work in progress. I think this is unusual, because an unusual amount of minutes are going to non-freshmen. Normally, I’d expect such a Kentucky team to be outright dominant on defense. KenPom had this defense projected first nationally in the preseason; Torvik had it sixth. Currently, it’s 38th on KenPom and 47th on Torvik; the latter’s numbers have it at 47th in the last ten games. Not quite the “Stop Talking About Evansville” Kentucky I keep being told about.

Now, they have improved from 59th at the time of the Tennessee game to 38th now, with a big chunk of that due to some phenomenal two-point defense. Of Kentucky’s last ten opponents, only Florida on February 22 finished above 50% for the game; Tennessee went 12-for-29 from two in theirs. As usual, it’s a defense that blocks tons of shots, but I’m more intrigued by Kentucky actually losing the rebound battle in most of their recent games and struggling with fouls against teams like Tennessee and Auburn.

Interior defense still not great, especially when Montgomery/Richards aren’t sharing the floor

Oddly enough, for all these blocks, Kentucky is still giving up a 59.4% hit rate at the rim, which ranks 177th in the nation.

It ranks fifth in Kentucky, even. (Louisville, Murray State, Northern Kentucky, and Morehead State all rank ahead of the ‘Kats.) All of Montgomery, Sestina, and Richards average at least 4.2 fouls per 40, meaning none of Richards’ backups can stay on the court for as long as Calipari would probably like.

Per, Kentucky’s fortunes are dependent on how many possessions EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards can play together. When both are on the court, Kentucky’s defense would rank 15th nationally, giving up a free Throw Rate of just 27.5% and allowing a 58.2% hit rate at the rim. When one or both is off the court, those numbers fall to 53rd, 32.4%, and 60.8%.

Tennessee’s got to go hot and heavy at the rim.

Still dominant away from the rim, though

Their mid-range defense, however, is saving the two-point defense as a whole.

Both Richards and Montgomery are dominant outside of the paint; these shots feel entirely pointless as soon as they go up. Kentucky’s holding teams to just a 28.3% hit rate on non-rim twos, which is right in line with what their block percentage on these shots (14.2%) would suggest.

They’ve sacrificed rim protection for overall mid-range protection; it’s certainly an interesting strategy.

The perimeter is worth testing

When we previewed this game a few weeks back, Kentucky had allowed opponents to shoot just 28.9% from three. I said that would probably regress somewhat, and it has all the way to 29.9%, even if Tennessee’s 7-for-26 outing didn’t help it do so. Three-point defense is more about preventing than defending the three, as studies show, and considering five of their last seven opponents have taken 45% or more of their shots from three, Kentucky hasn’t done a tight job of it.

As such, that’s how these Wildcats struggle with teams like Texas A&M (10-of-22 from three) and Vanderbilt (11-of-28).

When this group fails to win the national title, it will happen because of one or more of the following flaws: a defense that doesn’t force turnovers or prevent threes, or an offense that doesn’t generate threes in the first place.

NEXT PAGE: Yes, there’s improvement

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