You are only as strong as your weakest link!
Free throws and turnovers: one might actually be a strength while the other is the Achilles heel. Kentucky is playing on another level at this point in the season, and the team showed that last Tuesday against Arkansas by stepping on the throttle from the tip, and never letting off. Make no mistake about it; the Cats are capable of demoralizing their opponent every time they step on the court. But as any level-headed fan or coach will tell you, there’s always room for improvement. Two reoccurring criticisms of Kentucky that I and so many others write and talk about are turnovers and free throw shooting. If you ask most any Kentucky fan what is this team’s biggest weakness, you most often will hear those words (though not so much the latter recently, but we’ll get to that). Take a look at how the team is performing in these two areas.
Turnovers continue to plague just about everyone on the team, aside from Anthony Davis — no need for him to be handling the ball, it’s Lobtropolis down low. The issue seems to be the total lack of consistency from game to game. It’d be one thing if Kentucky were just flat out bad at holding on to the ball. It would be understandable too, because as fast at Kentucky runs, guys are going to cough it up from time to time. It’s just the nature of the best.
But we see in games against Portland (four turnovers), Samford (seven turnovers) and Auburn (eight turnovers), that the possibility of cutting back on losing the ball is very much a reality. It’s almost like they doomed themselves at the start, setting the bar too high and spoiling the (or at least my own) reality of expectations for the team.
This graph shows Kentucky is all over the place in turnovers comitted
Don’t misunderstand — The Cats aren’t in a terrible spot, it’s just on that “room for improvement” section of the evaluation form, the turnovers box needs to be checked. So far this season Kentucky has turned the ball over 252 times total and averaging 13 per game, ranking it 134th and 220nd respectively. The leader in fewest turnovers per game is Wisconsin with only nine. I guess holding the ball the entire length of the shot clock works in your favor at least one way. There is no magic number for maximum number of turnovers possible to secure a win, but any less than that average of 13 and it should be considered a good day.
Moving on, you need to give a lot of credit to this Kentucky team for its incredible boost in production from the free throw line. About this time last month everyone was moaning about the dreadful shooting at the line, when the Cats were making only 68% (but it felt like a lot worse). The good thing about Kentucky, and it’s something BTI wrote about in December, is that its subpar free throw shooting really hasn’t hurt them significantly. He says only three games in John Calipari’s career would better free throw shooting have turned a loss into a win. Pretty insignificant in the big picture — even if a couple of them came in March, and the other would have the Cats still undefeated this season. The offensive production on the floor is more than enough to compensate for bad shooting at the stripe. But who’s to say a few extra points are a bad thing?
One of the hardest things for me to watch — and this is true of any team, not just Kentucky — is working to draw a foul and coming up empty at the line; no benefit of being overly aggressive. But the Cats have begun to capitalize, and that’s always a sign of a good team.
Kentucky is beginning to level out in that 70-80% range
Kentucky ranks 13th and 14th in the nation in free throws made and attempted, but its percentage still ranks 80th at 72%. Regardless, that number easily breaks the stereotype of “Calipari teams can’t shoot free throws.” In fact, so far, this is the best free throw shooting team John Calipari has had at UK. His teams made 71% a season ago, and 67% before that. It’s hard to complain about progress. Perhaps it’s too early to be claiming victory at the charity stripe, but if we continue to see steady progress in making the easy ones how can you beat this Kentucky team?
So what have we learned? For starters, free throw shooting can no longer be considered a weakness. It not only has little impact on the final score, but Kentucky is actually making free throws fairly well now. Also, we know losing the ball in transition will happen, but cutting back on the careless mental-error turnovers will strengthen this team in more ways than just point production. I look at it as the “greatness threshold” for this team. Decrease just a few more per game, and stuff gets dangerous. Fewer turnovers will mean the team is more fluent with each other’s habits, the plays, and what Coach Cal expects in any given situation. Continue to monitor that stat, because when turnovers start to decrease with consistency, no one will stop the Cats.