Five and Five: Kentucky’s Strengths and Weaknesses Against North Carolina

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 2nd, 2011

Kentucky is the best team in the land, but no team is without faults. In preparation for Saturday’s showdown with North Carolina, we will highlight Kentucky’s five biggest strengths and five biggest weaknesses of this early season. (Ed. Note: The UNC analysis is here)


  • Ball Control/Turnovers — The Cats turned the ball over 21 times against Old Dominion with point guard Marquis Teague racking up six by himself. The Kentucky offense has to learn to play under control. The Monarchs showed the Cats a packed-in zone disrupting Kentucky’s desire to take its man off the dribble resulting in more missed shots and more turnovers than the Cats were accustomed to. If Teague can continue to grow and develop into the leader this offense needs, Kentucky’s half court sets will continue to improve exponentially.
  • Defensive Rebounding/Frontcourt Strength — Kentucky has a 73.1% defensive rebounding percentage, which is not great. This can mostly be attributed to games where the thin frontcourt was pushed around a little bit. Anthony Davis isn’t going to out-muscle any of his opponents. But he is quick and can beat other big men to the ball. Davis has used his athleticism and wingspan to block shots and grab rebounds, but he will have to learn to body up with big men who will attempt to push him out of position. North Carolina’s John Henson has a similar body type to Davis, so this may not be as evident on Saturday.
  • Free throw shooting — The Cats are shooting 68.2% on the year from the foul line. They hit a low-point against Kansas going 16 of 29 for 55.2%. Kentucky is aggressive on offense, and ends up going to the free throw line often. They will need to begin converting at the line to avoid this being an issue in the future. Davis leads the team with 36 free throw attempts, but is only making 53%.
  • Depth — Kentucky has at least six future NBA pros on the roster. However, John Calipari is only going about seven deep right now. Freshman Kyle Wiltjer and senior Eloy Vargas don’t have much consistency to their minutes. Wiltjer is averaging just over 15 minutes per game, but only saw three minutes of action against Kansas. And Vargas is averaging just over eight minutes per game. Outside of early season blowouts, Calipari has not stretched his rotation past eight players. It hasn’t been an issue thus far for the Cats, but Kentucky has avoided foul trouble for the most part.
  • Three-point Shooting — The Cats are a much better three-point shooting team than they were in 2009-10 when they couldn’t shoot West Virginia out of a 1-3-1 zone in the Elite Eight, but the Cats could still get better at knocking down open shots from beyond the arc. On the year, Kentucky has been a solid 39.6%. However, the Cats were disrupted into shooting 4 of 13 against Old Dominion for 30.8% in that game. Kentucky is sure to see more zones like the one that Old Dominion employed this year, and the one that the Mountaineers used on their way to the Final Four in 2010, so three-point accuracy will continue to be important. In addition to Doron Lamb, who has been hitting 48.3% of his three-point attempts this, Kentucky also has two great shooters in Wiltjer and senior Darius Miller, both of whom have struggled thus far. Look for both to find their stroke as the season goes on and their confidence grows, and perhaps they could move this area into the strength column.

Kentucky needs Darius Miller's three point accuracy from last year to re-emerge

Kentucky’s strengths are what have put them as the number one team in the country right now.
  • Ability To Create Turnovers — Kentucky has been great at creating turnovers because of its aggressive defensive style. The Cats have great length and speed to get into the passing lanes, and then turn steals into fast break points. Kentucky’s speed enables them to take gambles because their defensive players can recover quickly. The Wildcats forced St. John’s into 19 turnovers on Thursday night.
  • Fast Paced Style of Play — The Cats are at their best when they are playing quick but under control. Kentucky has scored in double digits on fast break points in three different games this year. It is almost impossible to defend UK’s alley-oop lobs in transition, so Kentucky consistently looks to create these opportunities by releasing its guards from defensive rebounding responsibilities.
  • Shot-blocking — Kentucky leads the nation in blocked shots with 11.4 blocks per game. Davis blocked eight shots against St. Johns, adding to his overall total of 4.86 blocks per game which also leads the nation. The Cats have length and athleticism at every position on the floor, and their defense swarms towards the ball. Kentucky is again able to gamble on defense because of their shot-blocking ability. There is never an easy shot against this defense.
  • Second Shot Opportunities — The Cats have an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.9%. They get plenty of second shot opportunities because of their commitment to crash the paint, as evidenced by grabbing 20 offensive rebounds against St. John’s. Davis, sophomore Terrence Jones and freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have a knack for coming up with every loose ball and fighting for every rebound, so much so that Davis is grabbing three offensive rebounds per game. Opposing teams will not want to give this Kentucky team a second shot at the basket.
  • Points in the Paint — Because of Kentucky’s great job on offensive rebounding, as well as its efficiency in the open court, the Cats have averaged 44 points in the paint thus far. That includes 78 points inside in UK’s opening game against Marist. The Cats are troubled offensively when teams pack in the defense down low and cut off easy points (again, see the Old Dominion game). Kentucky typically spreads the offense leaving the lane open for a post-up, a slashing offensive player, put-backs or a one-on-one drive to the basket. Regardless, Kentucky is successful at getting the ball down low in the lane before attempting a shot.

Look for Kentucky’s strengths and weaknesses to be highlighted in Saturday’s showdown with UNC. What area will have the most impact on the game? We will see if Kentucky can use its strengths to speed past the Heels.

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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