At the outset of the season, a 15-1 record heading into mid-January seemed like a pipe dream. For this team to escape Carolina, Louisville and Kansas unscathed, with no real injuries outside of Terrence’s pinkie finger is incredible. Even the most optimistic of the Big Blue Faithful expected the young team to drop one or two in the early going; that the only loss came from a hostile trip to Assembly Hall is nothing short of incredible.
This is a fantastic team. It would be an exercise in lunacy to take major issue with Kentucky’s performance to this point of the season. Of the 345 teams in D-1 college basketball, only 9 clubs are younger than this team. According to Ken Pomeroy’s predictive (read: accurate) ranking system, Kentucky is 2-1 against the top ten ranked teams. In fact, of the top 5 on Pomeroy’s list outside of Kentucky (UK is #3), the Cats are 2-0.
That being said, I’d be remiss if I ended the post here. While this team is playing exceptional basketball, especially in light of their youth and relative inexperience, they still have tremendous upside to achieve. This team must improve in fundamental ways in order to reach their potential. Below are 3 areas where this team can improve and be much more difficult for opposing teams to beat. While Kentucky can still win a national title without improving significantly in these areas, their opportunity gets better as these areas improve. Let me preface this with one point:
– The name of the game is efficiency
Ken Pomeroy posted a response to Matt Norlander’s contention that scoring this season is historically low, in which he argued that this year’s scoring was the second lowest in the shot clock era. Pomeroy included a graph in his analysis that demonstrates just how the game has evolved over the past 62 seasons: (OE = Offensive Efficiency)
I almost ran away from home when I was introduced to long division in the fourth grade, but even I know what this graph means: scoring opportunities are decreasing. For all of you material girls out there, this means that possessions are increasingly valuable. As the pace of the game slows down, teams are forced to adjust by making every trip down the floor count.
(All of the stats below are from KenPom.com, ESPN.com or CBS.com)
From an efficiency standpoint, Kentucky is in great shape moving forward.Pomeroy’s system provides an adjusted efficiency score for each D-1 offense, Kentucky’s 116.7 is the 6th highest in the country. What’s more, the defense’s score of 85.2 is ranked 5th.
Of course, the NCAA doesn’t award any prizes for fifth place. Florida, Mizzou, Syracuse and Indiana all have higher offensive scores than Kentucky, and Ohio State, Wisconsin, Kansas and Louisville outrank Kentucky in defensive efficiency. We are very good, but there is room to improve.
Three Areas Where Kentucky Needs to Improve:
1. Free Throw Shooting
We’ve covered this before, and Kentucky has showed marked improvement in this area, even in the past three weeks. After the Indiana game, Kentucky was 68% from the stripe (#183 nationally); the Cats are currently ranked #100 and shooting 71%. Raising that percentage is imperative to this team. Even at the current, relatively low percentage, points from the stripe account for 21% of Kentucky’s total points this season. Of the 344 teams, Kentucky is ranked #28 in attempted free throws. It should be clear then that Kentucky is leaving a lot of points on the table, so to speak. There will be games in the regular season (let alone the tournaments) where a handful of points will be the difference between a loss and a win and a high FT% will crucial.
2. Offensive Rebounding
This, like free throw shooting, is not about changing Kentucky’s offense. Instead, this is about improving in areas where Kentucky is already sufficient (read: not excellent). In Defensive rebounds per game (DRPG), Kentucky ranks #5 nationally with 28.3. This high number comes on the backs of Davis and MKG. In truth, of UK’s 453 total DRs this season, those two alone account for 202 of them.
However, Kentucky is in an eight way tie for #48 in ORPG. Granted, some this this is due to UK’s high eFG%, but this needs to improve. Kentucky can be forgiven for being out rebounded by South Carolina on Saturday (32-27) because they shot 59% from the floor. But getting only 6 offensive boards is a problem.
3. Three Point Shooting
The three point shooting percentage isn’t particularly low at 36%, it just appears that way relative to the 2PT% (53.6%). What concerns me is the impact, or lack of impact, that the three point shot has on Kentucky’s scoring: only 45 teams rely on the three less. Only 21.6% of UK’s points come from shots taken behind the arc, the same distribution given to free throws (The D-1 average is (27%). Kentucky must diversify their scoring portfolio.