Aside from winning at an absurd rate; John Calipari’s teams at Kentucky have all had two things in common, high levels of talent and inexperience. Another commonality that inexperience has brought to the table early on from season to season is frustration for fans, players, and coaches alike. It’s a valid excuse for frustrating play early on as well, after all when’s the last time you and other perfect strangers have been collectively thrown together to accomplish a task at an elite level with others actively trying to make you fail? While youth and inexperience are frustrating in the beginning, those traits fade away later on in the season, bringing about an elite level product that is a threat to take home the title come April. But, the all important question remains. Just when does that lack of experience fade away and become that all important championship product? To give a better look into this, I have been monitoring the past three seasons to see just when Calipari’s young teams break through their proverbial Freshman barrier to become that team capable of so much.
The data for the 2012 Wildcats improvement and when it occured can be found here (via Kenpom.com), while they may look confusing, it’s actually pretty simple to understand. Offensive Rating is simply points scored divided by possessions. Defensive Rating is the same, just for defense. Pythagorean Rating is a measure of the ratio between the two numbers, higher the better. Other basic stats are included as well. Forgive me for the very brash and basic stats for 2011 and 2010 versions of Kentucky that aren’t nearly as in depth as 2012’s edition, but its the best available data at this time.
The 2012 Wildcats were certainly an immensely talented group, but they did experience some lulls before conference play started. However, once mid-January hit the performance went from that of a very good team to elite-level team. This was mainly due to maturation of the Freshmen, and statistically speaking it was because of lack of turnovers lost on offense. Once Marquis Teague figured out how to command his team full of talented Freshmen the offensive switch went on and the squad never looked back. The rest as they say is history.
The 2011 squad was a different story, they started out at a high level (excluding the Maui title game) then entered a lull mid-conference season only to come out roaring in March. We often hear Calipari say “we’re everybody’s Superbowl,” and this was very much true in 2011. Many of the team’s losses came because of opponents’ ability to play at a much higher level than they were truly capable of. It can’t all be blamed on that though, much of this had to do with poor defense during those late months in the season. However that team turned up the defensive heat on the road in Knoxville, notching a win that sparked a late season improvement (eventual wins over Ohio State and North Carolina too).
Calipari’s inaugural Kentucky squad started out undefeated for a good portion of the season, but that was fools gold early on. Close wins because of turnovers and poor perimeter shooting were causes of this. This greatly affected offensive efficiency, but during early February the offense started to come together pairing with a stout defense, creating a nightmare for opponents. While that group fell short of their ultimate goal, there’s no denying the improvement late in the season.
So, what have we learned? Even though the record may be great early on it’s not a true indication of how well a Calipari team is truly capable of performing. There tend to be some struggles early on, as should be expected from all teams who lack veteran leadership. But they’ll improve drastically as the season progresses. What about the current ‘Cats who have yet to play a game, when will they start to skyrocket? Difficult to say as other teams before at least had some veteran leadership return giving a security blanket so to speak. While there are no returning upperclassmen who started, we do have some with D-1 experience in Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow. Given that, this may just be the most nontraditional team of Kentucky’s nontraditional teams, but expect them to be a contender come the later months of the season. Talent, experience, and a little bit of history say you’ll have to wait for this squad to hit their stride, but it’ll come eventually, and once it does it’ll be a powerful stride as well.