By SEAN VINSEL
Most college hoops pundits right now would offer the assessment that Kentucky can become a Final Four contender this season if they improve. Regardless of the exact wording, the consensus on Kentucky would include a number of qualifiers. That’s very reasonable, since the Wildcats are incorporating their usual array of new pieces and have rarely looked the part of a title contender so far. While Kentucky ranks 7th in the KenPom.com rankings as of this writing, that is influenced by preseason expectations. BartTorvik.com offers similar rankings but without preseason expectations, and Kentucky is a more modest 25th currently.
I believe that Kentucky has already shown us that they are an elite team, but it’s been hidden within some uneven performances. The best part for UK fans should be that it seems that the coaching staff recognizes it and has begun shifting rotations towards the things that make UK elite. In this edition of Hoops Insight, I’ll make the case that Kentucky is ready to be recognized as one of the elite teams in the country.
What You Should Know
For the season, Kentucky has a scoring margin of +18 points/100 possessions (adjusted for opponent strength). During the five games where EJ Montgomery has played, they’ve been even better at +26/100 poss. During these games, there’s been a big difference in how UK played depending on whether they played two or three guards (Hagans/Quickley/Maxey/Juzang):
- UK has played 2 guards 58% of the time, and has an adjusted margin of +17 pts/100 poss
- UK has played 3 guards 42% of the time, and has an adjusted margin of +39 pts/100 poss
During the last two games (against UAB and Fairleigh Dickinson) have been the first two games this season where UK played three-guard lineups more often than 2 guards. In both games, UK was better on a per-possession basis with three guards:
- Vs UAB, UK was -7 in 30 possessions with 2 guards and +22 in 33 possessions with 3 guards
- Vs FDU, UK was +7 in 17 possessions with 2 guards and +19 in 34 possessions with 3 guards
What Is Happening?
This kind of result can easily be caused by flukey circumstances. For example, UK’s three-guard groupings could be feasting on opponent bench lineups…but that’s not happening. With three guards during this set of games, UK has an adjusted margin of +40/100 poss. against four or more starters and +38 against three or fewer. For comparison, with two guards UK has an adjusted margin of +7 against four or more starters and +33 against three or fewer.
Sometimes these results are due to unsustainable 3-point shooting by the offense, or incredibly poor 3-point shooting by an opponent. That’s not inflating the performance of UK’s guard trios in this stretch, however. With three-guard lineups, UK is shooting 32% from three and opponents are shooting 35%. If anything, UK’s two-guard lineups are artificially benefiting from 3-point shooting as they have shot 40% from deep while opponents are at 24%.
The strong play by UK’s three-guard lineups during the five games with Montgomery is real, and driven primarily by two factors.
First, the Wildcats are hitting 64% of their twos (up from 55% for the season). This is unexpected, since they’re replacing a wing or big with a guard. However, most of UK’s core rotation is shooting better on twos when UK plays three-guard lineups…some by a large margin:
UK’s guards in particular shoot much better on two pointers when UK plays three-guard lineups. The last two games against UAB and FDU were a perfect example. Hagans, Quickley, and Maxey were 7-15 on 2-pointers in these games when UK had a three-guard lineup, but 2-10 when UK had only two guards on the court. I went back and watched film, and the key appears to be UK’s spacing and the increased aggressiveness driving the ball. When UK has three guards, all three tend to be on the perimeter and driving lanes are more open. They attack closeouts and get into the paint frequently, looking to score. When UK has only two guards, there is usually a teammate or two around the paint, and the defense clusters there. The guards tend to be driving into defenders, and pass more often than they shoot. UK also uses more pick and roll when playing two-guard lineups, but this tends to draw a crowd of defenders and clog up driving lanes.
Second, the Cats are turning the ball over on only 11% of their possessions when playing three-guard lineups (down from 17% for the season). Spacing has something to do with this, as the guards are more frequently met by help defenders on their drives and try risky passes. The other factor is simply that UK is playing one more strong ballhandler in place of a wing or big who is more turnover prone.
What Does This Mean for UK?
As I mentioned earlier, the last two games have seen UK play three-guard lineups more often than two-guard for the first time. Against FDU in particular UK played 2/3 of non-garbage time minutes with three guards, compared to about 39% during the opening six games of the season. Hopefully, this means that UK’s coaching staff recognizes this as a strength and is capitalizing.
There is one player for whom this development should be concerning. Kahlil Whitney has played 90% of his game time this season with two-guard lineups. It’s pretty clear that the coaching staff does not trust him to play the four alongside a big at this point. This seems to be justified by his poor rebounding, as he’s only grabbed 7% of opponent misses this season and has not grabbed a single defensive rebound when playing with three-guard lineups. Keion Brooks, on the other hand, has collected 14% of opponent misses and 16% when he’s playing with three guards. Whitney has been a solid perimeter defender this season, but he’s struggled shooting the ball and is rebounding the ball less often than any other Wildcat. The next few games will be crucial for him to carve out a role, or possibly lose a significant amount of playing time. To be clear, two-guard lineups have been much better with Whitney at small forward this season; UK’s two-guard lineups have been outscored on the season with Whitney out of the game, but are +51 with an adjusted margin of +17 pts/100 possessions with Whitney in. If UK continues playing three-guard lineups for 2/3 or more of the game, that is going to put a hard ceiling on Whitney’s minutes.
I want to thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. At Hoops Insight, I hope to use data to find insights that reveal things you didn’t realize about the Kentucky Wildcats. I’m using play-by-play data to track what’s happening, who’s doing it, and who is in the game, in order to show you things the box score can’t. Check out my past newsletters in the Hoops Insight Archive, and read about the stats I like to use in my stats glossary.
If you have any questions about things I’m saying, the data behind it, or if you just want to debate a point, feel free to contact me on Twitter at @hoopsinsights or email at [email protected] I’d love your feedback on the newsletter and how I can improve. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy my work.