Hi! This is, hopefully, the final installment for a little while in this short series titled Show Me Future Opponents. Beginning next week, with any luck, I’ll be back to the traditional schedule of previewing Tennessee basketball games. Until then, please enjoy this piece on Kentucky basketball and its successes/failures.
In the preseason, I felt of two minds about Kentucky’s #10 AP Poll ranking, two spots higher than Tennessee’s. On one hand, every post-2015 Kentucky team has started somewhat poorly, but by March, they’ve rounded into the form of roughly an Elite Eight-level team. Consider the following, as run on Bart Torvik’s fantastic site:
- 2015-16: #25 overall in games played from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31; #3 in games played from Jan. 1 to end of season
- 2016-17: #3; #8
- 2017-18: #29; #21
- 2018-19: #25; #6
- 2019-20: #42; #26
In four of the last five seasons, they’ve gotten noticeably better once conference play has started; the only outlier was the 2016-17 squad that was consistently excellent pretty much the whole way through. (Also a reminder that every 2019-20 SEC team was worse than you remember.) It stands to reason that a team that barely returned 7% of its minutes from 2019-20 won’t be very good to start the season, yes?
However, I’d like to posit the other hand of my argument: has Kentucky’s recent second-half play actually been enough to make up for their first-half issues? Look at those numbers over the last five years and you’ll see Kentucky failing to elevate their play in time for March in both 2017-18 and 2019-20. In four of those five years, they were barely, if at all, a top 25-level team entering conference play. Shouldn’t Kentucky automatically be given, like, the 19th spot in the preseason Top 25 until they show they can figure it out for a full season?
When Kentucky had the ball
Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I wasn’t terribly surprised this Kentucky roster lost to Richmond or Kansas, though it was kind of surprising they lost to both. A Richmond team that returned 80% of its minutes from a year ago was going to be much more prepared for a November battle; same goes for Kansas, even if they returned just under half of their minutes. What shouldn’t be excusable about Kentucky’s play thus far, even against two exceptional opponents, is just how bad their shot selection has been.
It’s one thing for Kentucky to be shooting 9-for-47 from three this season, as we’ll cover shortly. (They went 3-for-31 against Richmond and Kansas combined.) However, it would be another thing if Kentucky were simply missing shots you know they can hit while taking good, worthy shots otherwise. They decidedly aren’t doing that. Per Simon Gerszberg’s Shot Quality metric, Kentucky’s offense ranks in the 34th-percentile nationally through three games in terms of offensive shot quality. They’re two spots behind Howard, a team that got demolished by Division II Queens (NC) last week. Things are not good!
Through three games, Kentucky has some truly alarming shooting splits, in terms of where their shots are being taken. An astounding 39.1% of Kentucky’s field goal attempts thus far are non-rim twos, which, as we’ve discussed frequently, offers the lowest return on investment in college basketball. Players do have the capacity to hit these shots, obviously, and Kentucky is making about 41% of their non-rim twos thus far. Brandon Boston, Jr., Olivier Sarr, and Terrence Clarke have all flashed a propensity and a desire to get to 14 feet.
However, you’ve also got to get some amount of good shots to go with your bad ones that you’re currently making. Kentucky…is not doing that. Frequently throughout both of these games, the Wildcats appeared terribly disinterested in moving off the ball, running off-ball screens to get a shooter loose, or performing any relatively basic offensive task in general. Here’s a possession where three of five players don’t move a pixel after the ball crosses half-court:
Here’s a possession where Kentucky clears out with 16 seconds left on the shot clock for Brandon Boston, Jr. to commit a charge (not called) and brick a 14-footer worthy of the Reed’s Ranch Basketball League:
And here’s one where Kentucky’s lineup farts around for 29 seconds with little-to-no-movement, resulting in Terrence Clarke plowing a guy over while tossing the ball into the fourth row.
All of this is awful, and somehow, I’ve barely touched on the fact that Kentucky is shooting 19.1% from three through three games. Of course, that won’t last, and I don’t doubt that John Calipari is telling some version of the truth when he says that guys like Brandon Boston, Jr. (0-for-11) and Terrence Clarke (0-for-8) are clearly better shooters than they appear to be right now. However, I’d also argue that a good chunk of this is on Calipari. Davion Mintz (4-for-10) and Dontaie Allen (2-for-5) are the main shooters mentioned in essentially every Kentucky basketball article. For a team that needs shooting, you’d imagine guys who can hit shots like this would be playing big minutes right now, yes?
Ahhhhhh not really, sorry. Mintz played a combined 32 minutes against Richmond and Kansas despite Kentucky’s net rating being nearly 15 points better per 100 possessions with him in the game. Allen is trickier because he didn’t play a minute against Richmond and only got eight against Kansas, but Kentucky’s offense appeared to have way better spacing with him simply being on the court:
This could be a thing where Allen’s defense is so bad that it doesn’t allow him to play many minutes, but…kinda hard to judge that when he plays eight total minutes across two games, no?
Lastly, I don’t want to be all negative, so we’ll end on Kentucky’s lone positive. The Wildcats are simply dominant on the offensive boards against all competition, which obviously makes sense when four members of the starting lineup are 6’7” or taller. Richmond won by 12 despite giving up 21 offensive boards to these Wildcats, and Kansas allowed 13 of them. In particular, Isaiah Jackson appears to be a fantastic rebounder at 6’10”:
Jackson had seven offensive rebounds against Richmond and already has 12 total in his first four college games. That is, uh, good. It’s about all the positives you can give Kentucky thus far.
Kentucky’s got a ton of offensive problems. Some of them will resolve themselves just fine; obviously, I don’t think Boston and Clarke will go a combined 0-for-19 over every three-game stretch forever. However, when you look at the type of shots the Wildcats are getting, along with how many bad possessions are being used in isolation and fruitless 2006 post-ups, it gets much harder to figure out how this team’s going to perform a miraculous post-New Year turnaround to go from looking like a 10 seed to fulfilling being the preseason #10 team in the country.
When Kentucky’s opponents had the ball
If that section read like 800 words of disgust, this one will read like a polar opposite. Three games in, Kentucky’s defense has looked better than some of even the highest expectations their fans had. None of Morehead State, Richmond, or Kansas cracked a point per possession, and Richmond cracked 50% on two-pointers by just a hair. The only player who has consistently cracked the Kentucky code inside the perimeter was Richmond forward Nathan Cayo, who went 7-for-10 at the rim thanks to some quality designs by the Richmond staff:
Richmond went 18-for-24 at the rim against Kentucky largely because Olivier Sarr couldn’t get any long-term help. Sarr was forced to play 38 minutes, and as the game wore on, he was running out of steam fast:
As upsetting as that Richmond loss probably was, it came with a few positives. Notably, the Spiders shot just 11-for-43 on everything that wasn’t at the rim. When Kentucky was able to keep the Spiders away from the rim – something they weren’t nearly as successful at in the second half – things generally went much better for the Wildcats. Richmond was forced to take a lot of uncomfortable jumpers early in the game, which led to their poor halftime shooting percentage:
While Chris Mooney was right that Richmond wouldn’t shoot as poorly in the second half, most of the gains came at the rim. Against Kansas, Sarr wouldn’t have the same problem of overplay. Instead, he swung hard to the other end of the spectrum, playing just 14 minutes due to constant foul trouble. Without Sarr in the game, Kentucky figured to have rim protection issues…until Isaiah Jackson popped up out of nowhere and started blocking every shot known to man.
Jackson’s presence on the court forced Kansas to endure a 14-for-33 outing at the rim, and unlike the Gonzaga game, they didn’t make up that difference from the mid-range, converting just 1-of-13 non-rim two-pointers. With Jackson’s long arms out there, the odds of getting anything up over him seemed quite tall. I’d be fascinated to see how Kentucky can build this defense around him as the season goes on.
It also appears as if no threes will be made by either team participating in a Kentucky game this year. Through these first three games, Wildcat opponents are 15-for-67 (22.4%) from three, around 10% below the national average so far. Synergy judges Kentucky’s catch-and-shoot defense as needing some work, for what it’s worth – 24 unguarded threes have been allowed, compared to 22 guarded ones. Still, Kentucky has seemed to somewhat master three-point defense, as much as it can be mastered in college basketball. Only one Calipari team (2018-19) has ranked outside of the top 100 in opposing 3PT%, and all but two have ranked 63rd or higher. There’s a real skill to it:
Also, it helps when all you’ve recruited for years now is the same exact 6’6”-6’10” guard/forward archetype that’s all arms and can jump out of a gym. Kentucky basketball: the perfect team for those who hate threes for some reason.