After overcoming a shaky start on Saturday, Kentucky eventually pulled away to a 13-point victory over the Bruins of Belmont to get back to winning ways. After seeing the Cats shake off some of the problems that plagued them against North Carolina – the same problems which have plagued them all season – many fans are feeling better about this weekend’s annual battle royale with Louisville. The Cardinals enter Saturday’s contest in Rupp Arena with one of the nation’s elite defenses which can cause many different problems in all phases of the game. So far this season, Rick Pitino’s squad has not only demonstrated the ability to block a high rate of shots without fouling, but they’re also keeping opponents from connecting on field goal attempts within the perimeter, allowing only 43% of shots to fall. While these statistics demonstrate Louisville’s ability to disturb in the interior, their biggest strength comes from the ability to force turnovers, forcing an opponent miscue on an astounding 27% of defensive possessions. It’s no secret that one of Kentucky’s biggest issues this season has been taking care of the rock on offense, knowing this, it’ll surely be the focal point of Pitino’s defensive attack on Saturday. While the turnover problem will be key on Saturday, it’ll also be a key factor in determining if Kentucky can take home the hardware come April.
As it currently stands, Kentucky is ranked 198th in offensive turnover percentage (turnovers / possessions), losing the ball on 18.8% of possessions. It obviously goes without saying that if Kentucky wants to cut down the nets in Dallas they’ll have to drastically improve in this category. Most of the talk about improvement at this point in the season seems to be centered around this being a very young team going through some growing pains, and there’s certainly some truth to that. However, John Calipari has become quite accustomed to coaching youthful teams over the years. Only two of his teams in the past seven seasons – his final two teams at Memphis – have been ranked within the national top-200 in age experience. Knowing that all of his teams are relatively similar in the age department, I wanted to see if turnover percentage average dropped over the course of the season with experience or if turnovers persisted over time.
In order to conduct this research (Sorry Chester), I used turnover percentage. This statistic is a much better metric than standard turnovers per game as it takes overall efficiency into account. For an example of why turnover percentage is better than its basic counterpart, take the following into consideration. Say a team had ten turnovers in two different games, but one game had 55 possessions while the other had 75. Which of these two games was the team more efficient with the ball? The game with ten turnovers on 75 possessions because only 13% of possessions were lost compared to 18% in the other game. It’s this line of thinking that goes into this analysis. After game-by-game turnover percentages were acquired and put into a running average, we could see which teams got better throughout the season at ball handling and which teams didn’t.
While perimeter shooting is remembered as the flaw that sunk John Calipari’s first UK squad, turnovers were a major issue for that team all season long. To me, the almost blatant disregard for taking care of the ball was the most infuriating thing about that team, but I digress. However bad that team was at taking care of the ball, they did improve. Through 2010’s first 14 games, they turned the ball over roughly 23% of the time, but after they they gathered some experience, they knocked the turnover percentage down to 20%. They still weren’t very good in this category as evidenced by their 164th national ranking at the end of the year, but there was improvement.
John Calipari’s championship squad also improved as the season progressed, but unlike 2010’s squad who went from horrible to average at ball handling, 2012 went from good to great. After 15 games, the Cats were losing possession of the ball on roughly 19% of possessions, as the season concluded, those Cats only lost the ball on 17% of possessions (21st nationally). As I’m sure you can recall, the maturation of Marquis Teague was a big reason for that team’s success late in the season, and the numbers back it up.
The 2008 Memphis Tigers were quite the basketball team. Not only could they play tenacious defense that pressured opponents, but they also took extreme care of the ball as the season progressed. In the early portion of the season, the Derrick Rose led Tigers lost possession of the ball over 20% of the time. As time went on, those same Tigers eventually finished the season ranked 8th in turnover percentage, losing the ball only 16.5% of the time. As was the case in 2012, the more efficient the point guard play, the better the team for John Calipari.
The Tyreke Evans led Memphis Tigers of 2009 remained relatively unchanged in turnover percentage throughout the season. Of course, it’s difficult to improve in something when you’re already pretty good at it, and John Calipari’s final Memphis team was pretty good at keeping the ball all season. After their Sweet-16 game against Missouri which ended their season, the Tigers finished the year ranked 47th in turnover percentage, only losing the ball 18.1% of the time. This rate remained relatively constant for the entire season.
John Calipari’s second Kentucky squad was also a team that didn’t demonstrate improvement in turnover percentage as the season progressed. Of course, much like 2009 Memphis, it’s difficult to improve in something that you’re already really good at. Make no mistake about it, the Brandon Knight led Wildcats were extremely efficient with the ball all season long as their turnover percentage average never exceeded 17.2%. Not only did they never exceed 17.2% on the season, but they also finished the season ranked 10th nationally in this category, turning the ball over only 16.1% of the time.
As I’m sure you can recall, last year’s edition of Wildcats had many problems. I won’t bother listing them all as that horse has been beaten enough, but turnovers were undeniably a problem for that team. They started off the season with some promise, turning the ball over roughly 17% of the time, but as the season progressed, so did the turnovers. The Ryan Harrow led Cats finished the season turning the ball over on 19.4% of possessions, good for 138th nationally.
While Kentucky has struggled early this season with turnovers, I’d say there will certainly be improvement in this category as the year continues. History tends to indicate that a team who struggles initially under Calipari begins improving around the 15-20 game mark. As for the amount of improvement, it’s anyone’s guess. We still have players like Julius Randle and James Young who have yet to correct their turnover issues, but I’d say that more game time will benefit them greatly. Ideally, this edition of Cats can emulate 2008 Memphis and virtually eliminate the turnovers as time progresses, but even a marginal improvement would do wonders for this squad.