Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Kentucky, Part One

OPPONENT #18 Kentucky (13-3, 3-1 SEC, #9 KenPom)
(9-16, 8-9 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION I-75 Exit 108 Meijer
Lexington, KY
TIME Saturday, January 15
Jay Bilas (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Kentucky -5
Torvik: Kentucky -3.6

In a just world, this game would come on, like, February 5. Some sort of scenario where Tennessee is given an extra three weeks to learn how to play collegiate offense; some sort of thing where Kentucky loses to Auburn and Kansas and enters a game against Tennessee with quality numbers but relatively underwhelming results. Even as of the time of this game, Kentucky will only be a 4-5 point favorite once the odds are released, so you could pretty much call this a weighted coin-flip that lands in Tennessee’s favor 3-4 times out of 10. If this game were on February 5, or February 12, or February Whatever, you could talk yourself into those odds being 4-5 times out of 10.

That is not the case, because the games are played when the games are played. Tennessee has to find enough offense to win at Rupp Arena for the fourth time in five years while simultaneously sustaining excellent defense against a top-10 offensive unit. God help ’em.

Kentucky’s offense

I’m of two minds about this unit. On one hand, watching Kentucky upsets me irrationally because their on-paper shot selection is horrific. They take more non-rim twos than all but seven teams in America; only 61.7% of their shots are at the rim or from three. I hate it very much, especially when you’re converting an insane 76.1% of your attempts at the rim. On the other hand: they are converting 76.1% of their attempts at the rim, and even LSU and Duke (the two best rim-protection units they’ve played, both losses) only managed to hold UK to a 57% conversion rate down low.

Kentucky’s solution to what’s plagued them offensively in years past – a poor half-court offense driven by stagnant shot selection – has been to simply play much faster than you remember. 35.7% of Kentucky’s initial shot attempts are in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, per Hoop-Math, which is faster than any other year on record under Calipari. (2016-17 technically has a faster average possession, but they avoided late-clock possessions more frequently.) Kentucky’s revamped backcourt is driving this Daytona method, led by star guard TyTy Washington (13.7 PPG, 4.8 APG).

Washington is on pace to be a low-end lottery pick in the next Draft, and I’d call it fairly deserved. He doesn’t lift up a ton of threes (52 in 16 games), but he makes enough to make you respect him (40.5%). The real Washington killer, though, is his mid-range game; he’s currently hitting over 50% of his mid-range attempts. This is the rare player where any sort of shot he puts up is probably a reasonable one.

The other guy who you’ll see lead a ton of offense, if he’s able to play, is Sahvir Wheeler (9.6 PPG, 7.3 APG). Wheeler suffered an injury early in the LSU game last week and he’s missed Kentucky’s last two outings. Calipari is non-committal on his ability to play in this one, and as of publication, I haven’t seen anything one way or the other. (EDIT: He’s playing.) If he plays: the basic scout here is that Wheeler is absurdly fast and a far better player overall than he showed at Georgia. He has a bunch of wonderful passes…and some poor turnovers to go with it. Wheeler is not a serious threat from three or the mid-range, but is a terror at the rim for a 5’9″ guard.

The best shooter this roster has to offer by miles is Davidson transfer Kellan Grady (11.6 PPG), a guy who doesn’t actually shoot often (8.5 times per game) but is knocking down an insane 45.4% of his three-point attempts.

Grady is the one hyper-reliable deep shooter on the Kentucky roster. Washington is good but doesn’t take a ton of them; Davion Mintz (last year’s only quality shooter on the roster) is good but very streaky; no other player on the roster outside of those three has made more than six deep attempts this season. If Grady gets the ball, clasp your hands together and pray, because he’s shooting 50% on both guarded and unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts. Hopefully, for Tennessee’s sake, he doesn’t get more than 5-6 attempts total in this one.

The elephant in the room – literally – is Oscar Tshiebwe. This is the behemoth who is averaging 17 & 15 and is the best rebounder college basketball has seen since Kenneth Faried.

It would be one thing if a 6’9″ college basketball player averaged 9.8 rebounds per game. That would be very good. That would be Tshiebwe’s number if you removed all offensive rebounds he’s getting, AKA 5.2 per game. That’s quite obviously the best rate by any player in America.

While the guards are what runs Kentucky’s transition/primary break offense, the plurality of half-court and secondary actions flow through Tshiebwe in the post. Washington, Grady, and Keion Brooks, Jr. all get theirs in the half-court, but it’s Tshiebwe who’s the main focus. He’s heavily involved in Kentucky’s ball-screen sets and is quite agile for someone his size. The real killer, beyond everything else, is his work down low.

Tennessee has to find a way to both contain Kentucky in transition and keep Tshiebwe from murdering them either down low or on the boards. That’s a tough task, and while Kentucky only has one Quadrant 1 win to date (North Carolina), it explains why they’ve gone undefeated against the weaker beings of the schedule.

CHART! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means “rarely or never.” SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

Kentucky’s defense

Most seasons, John Calipari has had to scheme his way around his personnel to find the best-fitting defense Kentucky can have. The 2017-18 team Tennessee swept had to go with a 2-3 zone for significant stretches of the season to help mask their deficiencies in rebounding and isolation defense; the 2018-19 and 2019-20 sides went all in on half-court defense and blitzed pick-and-rolls; 2021-22 has been forced (?) into running a full-court press 10-12 times a game. It’s a basic full-court man-to-man press that Tennessee runs a similar version of. You’ll see some traps from time to time, but to be honest, it’s not terribly effective.

The real concern here is that, while it’s still very good, this is the least block-heavy (51st in Block%, lowest ranking of Calipari’s tenure) and leakiest overall rim defense the ‘Kats have shown in a really long time. In some aspects, it’s like should you consider a zone?, but in others, I think I understand what’s going on here. This is the first year in forever Kentucky doesn’t employ some sort of mammoth 6’11” center with arms longer than God and the vertical of a rocket. What they have at center is Tshiebwe (elite rebounder, average shot-blocker for his size), Lance Ware (7.5 fouls per 40), and occasionally Daimion Collins (6’9″ freshman, 6.5 fouls per 40). Unlike most Kentucky teams, the path to scoring at the rim enough to make you happy really does exist.

The problem is that, well, it’s still a great overall unit. The key of each Calipari team is its ability to force and block non-rim twos, and this one is no different. Kentucky forces more non-rim twos than all but 11 teams in the nation and blocks more of these shots than all but eight, so that part is legitimate once again. The structure of Kentucky’s defense sinks inward to prevent you from getting all the way to the rim on a typical possession. I imagine it’ll come as no surprise that Kentucky forces more runners and floaters than any other SEC defense.

Add that to Kentucky’s usual ability to run shooters off of the three-point line and into nasty long twos and you have what would be a nightmare matchup for…well, a lot of schools. Again, though: the path to points exists, and it’s more realistic than you’d imagine. Synergy ranks Kentucky’s around-the-basket defense in the 83rd-percentile nationally, which is excellent but not elite; whoever’s tracking their games in StatBroadcast is also heavily underestimating the actual amount of attempts at the rim (35.3% of all shots per Synergy, 29.7% per Hoop-Math). You can score down low against them.

More important for Tennessee fans, of course, is that while Kentucky is above-average at forcing Guarded threes (57/43; nat’l average 55/45), they’re not perfect. Kentucky has played four games against Top 100 opponents so far; outside of two total outliers from Duke and North Carolina (both 1-for-13), the other three teams (Notre Dame, LSU, Vanderbilt) have all taken 22 or more threes and made between 32-40% of their attempts. In particular, I’ve noticed that Kentucky’s had some issues guarding the left corner; out of 29 catch-and-shoot threes, 16 have been left wide open.

They’ve been very lucky that of those 16, opponents have hit two.

Lastly, we’ll discuss ball-screen defense. Kentucky’s had to defend a bunch of these this year, so we have a good base to measure. Unsurprisingly, on the majority of possessions he’s been asked to defend, Tshiebwe sticks in drop coverage to force the guard to finish over the top of his huge frame. However, it’s not an all-or-nothing situation; Vanderbilt caught the ‘Kats in a sort of hedge coverage several times, and Tshiebwe often wasn’t able to recover in time. Here’s an example:

The problem here is that you’ve gotta have a guard worth respecting who handles the ball. If Kennedy Chandler can be that, Tennessee can win this game. If he disappears for long stretches as he has over the last month, well, 2-3 in the SEC is on the horizon.

How Tennessee matches up

I’m guilty of attempting to make basketball sound like the most complicated game on the planet sometimes. To be fair, it kind of is if you’re looking at it on a play-to-play basis. However, a hefty amount of games hinge on two questions:

  1. Did you hit enough threes?
  2. If not, did you make up for it by either converting at a high rate on twos or getting to the free throw line?

If you fail to answer these questions correctly, you’re gonna lose more often than not. The same questions apply defensively, obviously, but these sections always start with offense. If Tennessee wants to win this game, the strategy is very clear: you have to hit enough threes or you need to be really, really good on twos. It all comes together to needing at least an eFG% of 50% or better to win; Kentucky is just 16-16 in the last four non-COVID seasons (last year seems like an obvious fluke) when opponents crack that 50% mark.

Let’s talk threes. I talked on Monday about Tennessee’s Seagulls Moment of figuring out if they were to be a serious offense or not, and the first data point of a 66-46 win over South Carolina was…not optimal. However, there was some amount of improvement in a particularly noteworthy area: corner threes. Not only did Tennessee go 3-for-6, they changed who got those shots.

Corner three-point attempts, first 14 games (makes in parentheses):

  1. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 24 (3)
  2. Josiah-Jordan James: 20 (4)
  3. Justin Powell: 12 (5)
  4. Santiago Vescovi: 11 (1)
  5. Zakai Zeigler: 9 (4)

Corner three-point attempts, South Carolina:

  1. Santiago Vescovi: 3 (2)
  2. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 2 (0)
  3. Zakai Zeigler: 1 (1)

See how much better that looks? Unsurprisingly, when you give your actual best shooters the best shots, it works out pretty well. As covered in the defensive section, I think Kentucky has a very good defense that isn’t great because it’s not quite as scary inside as it typically is and the backcourt doesn’t have a singular, shutdown defender that covers up the gaps. You can get open in the corner on this team with fair regularity. Please put the right shooters there when it happens.

The other part of this is that Tennessee’s going to have to get creative to score points in the paint. I mean, you and I both can sit around hoping that the Ram Everything Through the Post strategy works to the tune of Fulkerson or Nkamhoua dropping 20+, but I think we all know that’s not the most logical of scenarios. I would get Tshiebwe involved in ball screens early and often to drag him out of the paint. If he hedges, Kennedy Chandler (or Zakai Zeigler) have to be ready to hit cutters to the rim.

Defensively…well, the best-case scenario really is that Tshiebwe somehow gets in foul trouble and you can remove that albatross from the floor. If he manages 30+ minutes, this is going to be a hard game to win. If he’s out there, Tennessee has to be strong in half-court post defense. Tshiebwe will move around and set screens, but at the end of the day, he’s more willing to post up than to do anything else. Single coverage on Tshiebwe is something Tennessee could do, but considering Tshiebwe is the most efficient single-coverage post player the SEC offers, I would consider doubling him early and often.

Tshiebwe isn’t a terrible passer, but he’s not much of a passer, period. He’s posted more than one assist in just three of Kentucky’s 16 games. Double him in the post, because the alternative is likely worse. Tennessee rarely doubles in the post, but Tshiebwe is a rare beast.

The secondary thing here, and one that’s unusual, is that Kentucky both attempts more non-rim twos than threes and gets to the free throw line even less than Tennessee. (How about that for a sea change?) You can probably expect 30 jumpers from various depths from Kentucky in this game, along with six or seven floaters/runners. The guys who I wouldn’t allow to get off clean looks in the mid-range are Washington and Brooks (and Grady, I guess); everyone else is free to go. If they make it, whatever, beats Tshiebwe killing you.

This is going to be a battle for 40 minutes. Your best shot is that you make enough threes, hold Kentucky to a good-not-great hit rate on twos, and stay out of foul trouble. Let’s see if that unfolds.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Can Tennessee utilize a turnover advantage to overcome other deficiencies? Tennessee and Kentucky are similar turnover-avoidant offenses, but Tennessee’s defense is much, much better at forcing TOs. Tennessee really should finish with 3-4 fewer turnovers, even considering the home/away dynamic.
  • Can Kentucky make up for the TOs with OREBs? Kentucky ranks as the #2 offensive rebounding team in America; I’d say it’s deserved. That being said, Tennessee has quietly had its best season by far under Rick Barnes in terms of defensive rebounding against a pretty tough schedule.
  • Threes? Threes. Threes. Tennessee probably needs at least eight or nine to win this game, barring a Kentucky over/underperformance from deep.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Every Available Option at Center. Well, when you’re playing a Boards Behemoth who’s KenPom’s Player of the Year at this moment in time, you need everyone on board. Here’s various contributions I could see as useful: Olivier Nkamhoua features in ball-screens and various sets that draw Tshiebwe away from the boards. John Fulkerson does the Wacky Tube Man thing and draws a few fouls. Uros Plavsic…gets a tip-in? Maybe?

TyTy Washington vs. Kennedy Chandler. I’m very interested in this one because it seems like a matchup that should draw the best attributes of both players. Washington is a more skilled shooter, but Chandler’s much better at driving to the basket and grades out as the better defender.

Kellan Grady vs. Justin Powell. Technically, this is Josiah-Jordan James’ starting spot, but over the last five games (per KenPom), Powell’s gotten the plurality of minutes at the 3. I agree with the general staff consensus that Powell’s not great defensively which is why I’d totally understand the JJJ matchup here, but…I mean, Grady has similar defensive issues, too. Just shoot a basketball, dude.

Three predictions

  1. We find out how Justin Powell handles public criticism as he either takes 8 shots or 1 in 17 minutes of play;
  2. At some point late in the first half I regret not picking Tennessee even though the metrics favor Kentucky;
  3. Kentucky 72, Tennessee 68.

One thought on “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Kentucky, Part One

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