One of the primary faults of this year’s Kentucky team has been its lackadaisical starts. Game after game, opponents have come out with more intensity than the Wildcats and gained a large lead in the first five minutes. Many first halves have been spent trying to get out of these early holes, and some games may have been lost because of them (think Michigan State, Baylor, and LSU).
John Calipari’s recent solution to this problem has been to start freshman Dakari Johnson over the sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. Though there were times in the season where WCS looked like the second-best player on the team, he has gone through a pretty big slump in SEC play. After a miserable game at LSU, Cal opted to start Dakari in his place, giving Kentucky an all-freshman starting lineup and making the Fab Five comparisons even more convenient for us over-analyzers.
How well has the strategy worked?
Before Dakari was in the starting lineup, the Wildcats outscored their opponents by an average of 4.5 points in the first half. This amount ranks 50th in the country, behind the basketball powerhouses Canisius and St. Bonavent. In the three games that Dakari has started, UK has averaged a +6.7 margin in the first half – a total that would place them in the top 20 for the season. Though it’s a small sample size, the competition has also been harder than average in the past three games – which gives me a little more confidence in the statistic.
It’s hard to determine exactly why the team is starting better with Dakari in the lineup. When looking at their numbers, Cauley-Stein and Johnson are very similar. In fact, the only statistic where a player has a considerable advantage is blocked shots, and WCS has the edge (.129 blocks per minute vs. Dakari’s .052).
Regardless, in the three games Dakari has started the team has played better out of the gates. Willie Cauley-Stein hasn’t been phased by the transition much either; he played one of his best games coming off the bench against Ole Miss (18 pts 11 rebs and 6 blocks). As long as the team can continue to avoid those 10 point first half deficits, I’m sure everyone will be happy.