Can Kentucky Shoot Well Enough to Win It All?Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 16th, 2016
What does it all mean?
Whether we want to admit it or not, that’s the question we ask all season long in college basketball, where meaning is defined by crystal clear implication. We watch these games because we want to know before the rest of the sports world puts college basketball up on the biggest and brightest stage. Which of these teams can really win six straight in the NCAA Tournament? We’re inclined to believe that a number of teams can win, and they usually comprise the usual suspects. Take a look at the KenPom top 10 and who do we see? Duke, Villanova, Kentucky, Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Baylor. UCLA is just on the fringe at #11. That’s a pretty comprehensive list of blue-bloods, and blue is the color of focus here. Kentucky sits at #3 despite a loss to UCLA in Lexington. Nobody questions the roster John Calipari has once again constructed. It’s another one-year baby full of basketball talent, as it has been annually since he took the throne in Lexington.
Four seasons have passed since Kentucky won the National Championship. Two years ago, the Wildcats won 38 straight games before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. In that game, the Wildcats went only 3-of-5 from behind the three-point line and ended up ceding a net of 12 points to Wisconsin from behind the arc. This ultimately provided the margin and then some in a game most pundits expected to be a Kentucky appetizer before a main course dinner two nights later against Duke, itself full of one-and-done talent. Last year Kentucky was stopped well short of the Final Four by Indiana in large part because the Wildcats’ 4-of-16 performance from three-point range. Against Wisconsin, Kentucky knew it couldn’t hit outside shots and therefore simply refused to take them. Last year, they accepted Indiana’s dare and couldn’t hit the shots. The net of six points that went the Hoosiers’ way ended up as the final margin.
Of course much more than poor outside shooting contributed to those losses, but it’s also reasonable to conclude that had the Wildcats simply been more proficient from three-point range, Calipari could very well be sitting on several national championships. And that brings us to this season. Kentucky profiles as a team that is unwilling to shoot the three. The Wildcats are making only 32.4 percent from beyond the arc this season, which ranks 245th in the nation. However, the three-point shot is clearly not a priority of Calipari’s offense, as fewer than a third (31.5%) of Kentucky’s shots are threes (280th nationally) and less than a quarter (23.2%) of their points come from behind the arc (311th). One of the problems with non-conference schedules in general is that, even though elite teams like Kentucky occasionally battle other elite teams, the remaining very weak competition can make early season numbers somewhat noisy. An alternative explanation could simply be that Kentucky hasn’t needed to shoot threes to stay proficient amid all the driving and dunking they are doing on a regular basis.
In their lone loss, however, the Wildcats held true to their profile. In falling 97-92 to UCLA, Kentucky shot 8-of-24 from three-point range (half of which came in the final six minutes of action) and gave up a net of six points on long-range shooting. Malik Monk is shooting a solid 39 percent from distance but the Wildcats’ next two highest volume shooters — Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis — have only attempted 67 three-point shots combined. De’Aaron Fox brings a lot of things to the table but his 3-of-21 shooting from the three-point line demonstrates both an unwillingness and inability to consistently hit from deep. Isaiah Briscoe, part of Kentucky’s most-used lineup, per KenPom, is even more reluctant to shoot (4-of-17). Interestingly, the only two teams in the last decade to win a title without being a good three-point shooting team were 2011 Connecticut (32.9%) and 2013 Louisville (33.3%) — both of which utilized mercurial offensively-minded driving guards and excellent defense to ultimately cut down the nets. Sound familiar?