Winning is fun. Winning against Tennessee is really fun. Winning at Thompson-Boling Arena is the most fun.
Kentucky used five first half three pointers from Davion Mintz to build a 45-30 leading going into the locker room and never looked back from there.
After shooting 60.7% from the field in the first half, including 6/9 shooting from beyond the arc, the offense was clicking on all cylinders. Unfortunately, the halftime break cooled everybody off as the Wildcats shot just 20.7% and scored only 25 points the rest of the way.
Where the Kentucky offense let off the defense picked the slack right back up. Tennessee managed just 26.9% field goal shooting in the second half with a 1/12 mark from the three point range. The Volunteers scored only 25 points of their own in the second half to play the ‘Cats to a tie.
Isaiah Jackson led the way with 16 points and 7 rebounds while Davion Mintz scored 15 points on 5/7 shooting from deep. Olivier Sarr contributed 10 points and 7 rebounds and Keion Brooks added 10 points with a game-high 14 rebounds off of the bench. The 70-55 victory was the third straight for the Wildcats and got them back to .500 in the SEC at 7-7 with an overall record of 8-13.
Kentucky was original scheduled to play Texas A&M on Tuesday but that game has already been postponed due to ongoing Coronavirus issues within the Aggies program. This week’s schedule is still up in the air at the time of this article on Sunday evening, but we do know that Florida is set to come to Rupp Arena on Saturday for a matchup on on CBS at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
Much Improved Transition Offense
Part of the offensive revolution taking place for Kentucky over the last four weeks stems from the willingness to play at a faster pace. Their possessions per game haven’t necessarily increased very much at all, but you can see that the players have more freedom in transition and are looking to score earlier in the clock. UK’s strong defense and half-court style of offense will always keep their overall possession count in the low-70s, but increased confidence shooting the 3-pointer has led to the ‘Cats getting more points in transition/secondary.
Early on in the season the Wildcats had horrendous spacing on the offensive end. Whether it was on a fast break or in the half-court there were countless times where we were simply in our own way. Over the course of the last eight games the floor has really started to open up and guys are starting to run in their lanes in transition. Hot 3-point shooting certainly helps the cause as well.
Going forward I think Kentucky would be well-served to continue to push the pace even faster. Davion Mintz, while he still makes some bad decisions leading the fast break, is a much better creator before the opposing defense is set. B.J. Boston has proven of late that he can in fact knock down open 3’s and is a good guy to throw it ahead to in transition as well. In the front court, Isaiah Jackson is becoming an excellent rim-runner and will continue to open the floor up for everyone as he consistently sprints down the court straight to the basket.
Kentucky’s half-court offense is certainly improving and finding an identity (baseline floppy action along with some high-low looks) has finally created some easy baskets. However, finding some quick scoring opportunities through getting out on the break more and more will be the key to sustaining this newfound success through the rest of the season.
Isaiah Jackson should get one or two of these baskets every single game. He is such a good athlete that he can beat opposing big men down the floor anytime he decides to run hard. I don’t say that as if he doesn’t always play hard because I don’t think that is an issue for him, however for much of the season he just didn’t run to the right place. Instead of running right to the front of the rim he, and the other big men, would float towards a block or the short corner even. When you rim-run not only do you potentially get an easy layup for yourself like Jackson does here, but you also suck the defense in to open up the shooters running to the corners. Great pass from Davion Mintz and great run and finish by Isaiah Jackson.
This is a shot I’m not sure Davion Mintz would have taken at the beginning of the season. He has been Kentucky’s most consistent shooter all season long, but we just didn’t play with the same type of freedom as we have recently. This is a confident shot from a really good shooter. Anytime Mintz can have this much space from beyond the arc he needs to let it fly. SHOOT ‘EM ALL as I always say. Big time shot!
Just over 90 seconds later after the above 3-pointer Mintz got himself another one. This time the Tennessee defense just didn’t pick him up high enough and he dribble right into an easy 3-pointer. Again, anytime there is this much space he needs to let it fly. Davion Mintz’ confidence is absolutely through the roof right now and it is a great thing to see.
Kentucky had 11 points in first five and a half minutes of the game, eight of which came essentially unguarded by playing fast and free in transition. The ‘Cats need all of those points that they can get.
Productive Half-Court Offense
The second half wasn’t pretty from an offensive standpoint, but overall these last eight games have showcased a completely different Kentucky team from what we saw in the first 13 games. The Wildcats have now scored at least 70 points in seven of the last eight contests and have eclipsed the 80 point mark four times.
Kentucky’s scoring output has increased to 74.4 points per game over the last eight games compared to just 67 points per game to begin the season. From three point range, the ‘Cats have stayed hot connecting on five more long balls in the last eight games than they did in the previous 13. UK is 39.5% from deep during this recent stretched compared to 28.4% before. The free throw percentage continues to climb as well with the team shooting an excellent 78.6% from the charity stripe over the last four weeks. That is up from 69.6% prior to the run.
Converting from the foul line and some hot three point shooting has certainly led to the improved scoring outputs, but schematic changes and better execution are the cause to the effect. The half-court offense is significantly better than it was before in large part due to spacing and finding a couple of go-to actions that fit the skill set of these players.
Kentucky has simplified the offense recently and the execution has increased. This is just a simple Horns set for Keion Brooks to pop and drive it to his right from the top of the key. Yes, it is simple, but it also is super effective because it puts one of your best players in a position to play to his strengths. This the type of offense you can turn to anytime you need a bucket and you know you at least are going to get a decent look at the basket.
This clip is the exact same play as the clip above but from early in the game. Keion Brooks gets cut off by Yves Pons this time so he swings the ball to B.J. Boston on the wing as Isaiah Jackson continues to post up. By now we all know that Jackson isn’t exactly a bruiser in the post. He isn’t going to duck you in on the low block and score with his back to the basket. However, he is really effective when he can face you up and drive the ball to his right. On this play he whips Fulkerson along the baseline for a highlight reel dunk. Again, there is nothing special about this half court set but it ends up with one of our best players in a position to play to his strengths.
The importance of Keion Brooks to the improvement of the offense cannot be overstated. He brings a veteran sense of composure that wasn’t while he was on the sidelines with a lower leg injury. There is nothing flashy here, but Brooks is able to catch the ball in space and drive it to the middle against a bigger defender. He gets to the SEC logo and jump stops to allow himself the ability to pivot around while looking for a teammate. Younger players generally play off of one foot too often while good, veteran guys play off of two feet. Brooks has gotten really good at making this play. He drives it in there, pivots, and finds an open Davion Mintz for one of his five first half three pointers.
Along with some high-low looks to Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Jackson, this “floppy” action has become the identity of the Kentucky’s offense. Davion Mintz has already knocked in three triples at this point and the ‘Cats go to the hot hand on this play. Once Mintz swings the ball back to the top of the key he takes off sprinting along the baseline first receiving a little backscreen from Sarr but is mostly going to get his head under the rim and read his defender from there. In this particular instance he gets a ton of early separation from his defender so he just keeps on coming off the pindown screen set by Jackson. Mintz’ defender makes the poor decision of going up through the screen and Mintz sets his feet and connects on his fourth three pointer of the half.