Following last season’s tough loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, there were a lot of comments on the direction of the program. Kentucky’s recent inability to close on any top-five recruits took up most of the oxygen, but John Calipari has appeared to solved that issue with Terrence Clarke currently signed and set to be a member of the basketball program next season. The next major talking point was the pace of play.
In the decade-plus under Calipari, Kentucky has only averaged over 68 possession per game three times and has never led the SEC in tempo. Last year, we saw the Wildcats average just 65.6 possessions per game and that ranked 284th nationally which was the lowest mark of the Calipari era. The Wildcats were 13th in pace in SEC games as they wanted to lean on their power game and beat teams with execution in the half court.
In the three seasons we saw Kentucky average at least 68 possessions per game, only one of them reached at least 70-plus possessions on average (2017). Then the Wildcats primarily used a three-guard lineup with Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel both being utilized as a stretch four. In 2010, the Wildcats had your traditional two big lineup, but Calipari was using the dribble drive motion offense and allowing John Wall and Eric Bledsoe to get out and run while college basketball overall hadn’t adopted the pace movement yet. In 2018, the Wildcats were fishing for answers for most of the season and with no consistent post threat, increased possessions allowed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to go to work off the bounce.
After rolling with a traditional lineup earlier in the season, Kentucky has found a shooting star in Immanuel Quickley and now we are seeing UK stick strictly to a three-guard lineup. Since the Ohio State loss, UK has ramped up the tempo with 7 of the last 10 games reaching over 70 possessions. The Wildcats are averaging 70.7 possessions in SEC games and this currently ranks fourth in the conference and only the 2017 team averaged a higher number (73.3) in league play. It’s clear that when Kentucky goes three guards that Cal is willing to push the tempo, but what exactly does it all mean?
Well, when Kentucky has gotten itself into some grind it out games with talent similar opponents, they have struggled this season.
Both games out in Las Vegas were under 68 possessions and in each outing we saw the offense struggle. The Wildcats allowed just 1.03 points per possession against Utah but they simply did not have the offensive answers against a very pedestrian defensive team. The weekend game at T-Mobile Arena did not fair much better.
Ohio State was able to gut out a win over Kentucky in a close game that really came down to crunch time execution. The Buckeyes put up just 1.08 points per possession, but held UK to under a point per trip. This past week we have seen more of the same.
The Wildcats played their first two games that went under 70 possessions for the first time since SEC play opened and the results were not great. UK found themselves trailing by 10 to a bad Vanderbilt team with under 18 minutes remaining before turning up the defensive heat and extending out past the three-point line. Later that weekend, UK fouled Auburn a lot and were outplayed in crunch time on the Plains. It’s clear at this point that UK is at their best when they are able to push the tempo and stay out of grind it out basketball.
UK’s most recent losses, South Carolina and Auburn, have shown us that guarding without fouling can be an issue for this team and when that is the case they can be very bad on defense. Therefore, in these games, they are going to need to create more possessions to give themselves a better chance at victory.
Now that we’re into February we are now going to find out what John Calipari’s plan will be. With the unexpected departure of Kahlil Whitney, Kentucky is all of a sudden very thin but Cal has always preferred to not have a very deep bench. However, you would like to have numbers when your plan is to play a lot of possessions. With four players currently needed to be on the floor for 30-plus minutes nightly (Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards, Immanuel Quickley) it could result in some shrinking the game tendencies.
What we’ve seen so far shows us that this is not where Kentucky is at their best. It is pretty evident at the moment that this group has a hard time guarding without fouling and has had their offensive warts appear at some really bad times. First things first they need to figure out the fouling situation, but they also need to figure out who they are.
The four spot on this team remains a mystery and feels like the missing piece to becoming a true championship contender. Despite the three-guard lineups, Kentucky has had a lot of trouble maintaining leads and their current offensive efficiency rating is barely above the 2013 team which ended as the worst team of the Cal era. Long story short, there are a bunch of issues.
Putting the ball into the hands of your three guards and letting them put pressure on the opposing team as much as possible seems like the logical answer. However, more possessions equals more fouls and that is exactly how UK lost both of its SEC games to this point. The game typically slows down in March and we’re likely to see decreased possessions with Calipari leaning heavily on this three guards in the half court if UK can’t fix these defensive issues. The bottom line is that there is no real easy answer with the current personnel. It may just have to come down to matchups more than ever in the NCAA Tournament for this team to make a deep run.