Late in conference play is usually the point when young teams start to click. John Calipari’s latest edition of a young team at Kentucky, however, appeared to be regressing during a recent five-game stretch where the Wildcats lost three games. Over that period, his team was held under a point per possession three times — after doing so only twice to that point in the season — and gave up more than a point per possession to all five opponents. It wasn’t a very good run of play, but perhaps the predicted demise of Kentucky came far too soon.
Will Calipari’s latest reboot work to turn around the Wildcats? (image via CBS Sports)
Calipari’s defense came together on the road against Alabama on Saturday (holding the Tide to 0.83 points per possession), and his team followed that up with its most complete performance in almost a month against Tennessee earlier this week. What did Kentucky recently change that Calipari hopes to ride into March? In this edition of Freeze Frame, we examine several factors that will help the Wildcats keep their winning streak alive.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Tuesday announced that it would provide an in-season preview of the bracket’s top 16 seeds. SEC fans outside of Lexington should not get overly excited. Kentucky will most certainly hear its name called during the first-ever event, but it is unlikely any other SEC team will. In fact, Selection Sunday — wherein, of course, 68 names are called — may not be all that much better. The snark targeted at SEC basketball is at an all-time high with Sports Illustrated predicting no more than three conference teams in the Big Dance (doubling down on that prediction again with Seth Davis’ column), the bracketology at CBS showing Kentucky little respect as a #3 seed, and even the most kind bracketologist projecting a maximum of four SEC teams partaking in March Madness. National confidence in the league is painfully low, and perhaps that makes sense considering the resurgence that has been predicted for years has not come with the requisite corresponding postseason success (aside from one program).
Could Mike Anderson hear Arkansas’ name called on Selection Sunday?
The consensus among bracketologists is that three SEC teams are safely into the field as of today – Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida. While there is some debate about how deserving Kentucky is of a #1 seed, there is no scenario that slots the Wildcats any lower than the #3 seed line. A win on Saturday against Kansas would only strengthen Kentucky’s case for a top seed. South Carolina ranks #17 in the RPI and holds wins over Michigan, Syracuse and Florida. The Gators could really use a signature win beyond those three, but they have an RPI of #11 and are the nation’s 13th-best team, according to KenPom. Beyond the top three, the question becomes which SEC teams, if any, have a reasonable chance of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Correspondingly, how important are Saturday’s match-ups in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in order to keep their hopes alive?
The SEC race is difficult to project in the murky middle of the league standings, remaining fairly wide open after Kentucky (6-0), Florida (5-0) and South Carolina (4-0) have taken the top three spots. Arkansas (3-3) and Texas A&M (1-5) were popular picks to come next, but both teams have been inconsistent to this point. Could Avery Johnson’s 3-1 Alabama squad push forward to a top-five finish in league play? It depends. The Crimson Tide are led by the 19th-best defense in college basketball, according to KenPom, but their anemic offense ranks second-worst among SEC teams and is among the bottom half nationally (189th).
Avery Johnson would be happy to score easy buckets however he can get them. (Photo by USA Today)
In order to make that leap, Johnson’s club needs to find all the easy scoring it can get. The Tide turn the ball over on more than 20 percent of their possessions, shoot very poorly from the outside (31.4% 3FG) and rank a lowly 315th nationally in free throw percentage (64.0% FT). Those weaknesses are unlikely to improve much at this point, but one area where Alabama was effective in its loss to Florida last week was on baseline out of bounds plays (BLOBs). In this edition of Freeze Frame, we dive into the quick-hitters that Alabama uses to find easy points under the basket. Read the rest of this entry »
During this week’s television broadcast of the Kentucky-Texas A&M game, viewers could hear Wildcats’ head coach John Calipari yell “Go! Go! Go!” at the top of his lungs seemingly every time the Wildcats touched the ball. Calipari is simply exhorting his team to play to its strength, which, as you may have noticed, seems to be working. The Wildcats are currently the ninth-fastest team in college basketball (average possession length of 14.0 seconds), but what Calipari knows is that his team runs much better offense the faster it goes.
Kentucky’s early offense in SEC play.
As the above table shows, when Kentucky shoots the ball in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, its offensive efficiency comes in at a blistering 147.8 points per 100 possessions (over the 153 total possessions I have charted during conference play). However, if the Wildcats’ offense runs past the 10-second mark on the shot clock — effectively dropping back into the half-court offense — it drops to an an offensive efficiency rating of 107.7; effective field goal percentage drops over 20 percentage points; turnover percentage increases; offensive rebounding percentage decreases; and, free throw trips drop. In other words, outcomes are a lot better for the Wildcats when they get a shot up within the first 10 seconds. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze Kentucky’s offensive efficiency by possession length.
If there is such a thing as a moral victory, Tennessee exited Chapel Hill with a massive win on Sunday night. As Rick Barnes‘ Volunteers led a more experienced and talented North Carolina club by as many as 15 points in the first half, it felt as though we were watching the second-year SEC coach’s coming-out party. But Barnes wasn’t interested in victories that don’t count in the win column, saying afterward: “I don’t want them to feel good about being close in games. We’ve got to figure out a way to get over the hump.” If Tennessee is going to get over that hump this season, it will need to find a better way to get the ball to wing Robert Hubbs —something the Volunteers failed to do with the game on the line over the weekend.
Rick Barnes almost had a signature win for his early tenure in the SEC (Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images)
Tennessee’s offense completely sputtered down the stretch in Chapel Hill, scoring just five points in the critical last five minutes of the game. Hubbs dominated the wing, scoring 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting before sitting with cramps with just over five minutes remaining. When he returned to the Vols’ lineup at the 3:35 mark, his teammates failed to get him the ball on three critical possessions down the stretch. In the first scenario — with Tennessee up one point and 2:46 remaining — Shembari Phillips dribbled around the perimeter for most of the shot clock before giving it to freshman Grant Williams so he could settle for a contested three-point jumper. Here is the offensive set in all of its glory.
In the second critical possession, the Vols — now trailing by one point with less than two minutes remaining — drew up a play out of a timeout to get Hubbs the ball. As the screenshot below shows, Hubbs moves across the lane as if to set a screen along the baseline before pivoting to post up his defender. Phillips then dribbles to the right wing for the post entry pass, but North Carolina’s Kenny Williams plays such great denial defense that Hubbs ends up about 18 feet from the basket. The play fails. Phillips has nowhere to go, so he instead hands the ball off again to Williams at the top of the key, who quickly drives and turns the ball over. Read the rest of this entry »
We may look back in March at last weekend’s match-up between Kentucky and UCLA and recall that the Bruins were the first team to outline the blueprint to beat the Wildcats. But while John Calipari‘s defense conceded 1.17 points per possession against the red-hot Bruins (which represents the worst non-conference home defensive effort in the Calipari era), it was the offensive end of the court that proved more concerning. Yes, Kentucky’s young defenders looked a little lost at times, and Calipari even pointed to his team’s woeful defense after the game. “For us, this wasn’t about offense,” he said. “We weren’t a disciplined enough team defensively.” But we all know that Kentucky’s defense will look much different in March than it does now, with different being code for improved.
John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky’s defense, but it’s his offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com)
Even though the Wildcats scored 1.11 points per possession against the Bruins, the bigger concern exhibited in that loss was about a half-court offense that struggled mightily against a mediocre defense. The Wildcats, one of fastest teams in the country at 75.2 possessions per game, are virtually unstoppable in the open court. However, UCLA’s hot shooting forced Kentucky to operate the majority of its offense in the half-court, ultimately exposing the Wildcats’ fatal flaw – its inconsistent three-point shooting.
South Carolina strung together 15 straight wins to begin the 2015-16 campaign, so forgive us all if we are still a bit skeptical over the Gamecocks’ latest hot start. Last November’s highlights included iffy neutral site wins over Hofstra and Tulsa, leaving some question about just how good Frank Martin’s team really was (it turns out that question was valid). This season, however, the Gamecocks enter December leaving little doubt as to their legitimacy after a pair of impressive KenPom top 25 (Michigan and Syracuse) victories already on their resume.
Frank Martin’s Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.
The hallmark of Martin’s tenure in Columbia has always been his defense. The Gamecocks have boasted the 36th and 21st best defenses, respectively, over the last two seasons, but early indicators suggest that this may be his best defensive team yet. South Carolina held Michigan and Syracuse to just 19.2 percent and 31.8 percent shooting, respectively, from the field. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will analyze the Gamecocks’ defense to assess the ultimate ceiling for South Carolina this season. Read the rest of this entry »
Arkansas loves to play fast. That statement isn’t exactly newsworthy, but this year’s version of the Razorbacks might be even more effective in the open court than Mike Anderson’s previous squads in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks were tested at home on Friday night in a 71-67 win over Texas-Arlington, and they responded with excellent defense that allowed them to set up the fast break. This also gave us an opportunity to analyze Arkansas’ transition offense in this week’s Freeze Frame.
Arkansas has reduced the number of mid-range jumpers it shoots, in part because of an increase in its transition field goal attempts.
As you can see in the table above, Arkansas’ overall shot selection has improved from a season ago. Contested two-point jump shots are the worst shot in college basketball, and through three games, the Razorbacks have proven far less reliant on the mid-range jumper. A decrease of almost 10 percentage points in attempted twos has resulted in the Razorbacks taking six percent more shots at the rim and a few percentage points more from beyond the three-point arc. This is important because Arkansas is converting over 44 percent of their three-point attempts so far this season. One reason for the bump in offensive efficiency is that Anderson’s team has increased its reliance on transition play from just less than a third (31.3%) of its overall initial field goal attempts last season to 38.9 percent in 2016-17.
Since Mark Fox’s arrival in Athens seven years ago, Georgia‘s calling card has not been made on the offensive end of the floor. Last season, the Bulldogs didn’t take care of the basketball (19.2% TO rate), weren’t particularly accurate from beyond the arc (36.8% 3FG), and weren’t the strongest offensive rebounding team (32.4% offensive rebounding rate) either. The most alarming statistic, though, was a dreadful 44.8 percent two-point conversion rate, a mark that ranked a horrendous 316th nationally. If Georgia is going to get back to the the NCAA Tournament like it did under Fox in 2015 and 2011, it will have to score more efficiently in large part by avoiding bad two-point jump shots.
Georgia’s Mark Fox would love to see the Bulldogs attack the rim. (The Athens Banner-Herald)
Charles Mann is no longer in a Georgia uniform to get easy points at the free throw line, drawing 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes and scoring 43 percent of his points at the charity stripe. By comparison, backcourt mate J.J. Frazier, the Bulldogs’ primary ball-handler, scores just 27 percent of his points from the line. Where Mann’s game relied on attacking the hoop, Frazier is far more reliant on jumpers. If Georgia’s first couple of games this year are any indication, Fox hasn’t quite broken his point guard from the tendency to settle for too many mid-range jumpers. According to hoop-math.com, Georgia took 41.1 percent of its shots from mid-range last season (27.3% at the rim; 31.6% from three). To frame that number appropriately, the Bulldogs’ percentage of shots that came as two-point jumpers ranked ninth nationally. Conventional basketball wisdom says that long two-point jump shots are terribly inefficient, yet they are clearly a big part of Frazier’s offensive game. Read the rest of this entry »
With Halloween still fresh on our minds, there is nothing scarier than the bottom tier of the SEC. There are tigers, tigers, even more tigers, and there is nothing more frightening than a grumpy Frank Martin or a Johnny Jones-led offense without the services of Ben Simmons. If none of that sends chills up your spine, just think about Missouri basketball. If you were lucky enough to get through Halloween night with some leftover candy, the days that follow usually involve filtering through your stash to devour the best of the rest. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find a full size candy bar or those Halloween Kit-Kats (which are the best, by the way) hiding near the bottom. But more often than not, you end up with a skeleton pencil or those disgusting brown globs of goo wrapped in black and orange wrappers. This post is less of the delicious Kit-Kats that disappeared within seconds of returning back home, and more of the box of raisins that sat in the old lady down the street’s pantry for a decade. Let’s unveil our series of team previews beginning with the bottom tier of the SEC (#14-#10).
AT A GLANCE
#14 Missouri Tigers
Kim Anderson Has a Lot of Work Still Ahead in Columbia (USA Today Images)
Team Analysis: Wes Clark was dismissed; Namon Wright, Tramaine Isabell and Jakeenan Gant transferred; and Ryan Rosburg graduated, pretty much leaving the cupboard bare for Kim Anderson’s third year. Missouri’s defense was bad and its offense was even worse. There is nothing to suggest that this year will be any better in Columbia.
Burning Question: Can Missouri protect its home floor in non-conference games? Last season, the Tigers won seven of their eight non-conference games at Mizzou Arena (losing only to NC State). The home slate wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row of college basketball powerhouses (with Wofford, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Arkansas State, Northern Illinois, Nebraska-Omaha, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Savannah State making the trip), but neither is the 2016-17 schedule. Missouri welcomes Alabama A&M, Northwestern State, North Carolina Central, Western Kentucky, Miami (OH), Arizona (well, they can’t all be cupcakes), Eastern Illinois, and Lipscomb to Columbia, meaning that if Anderson’s squad has any hopes of getting to double-figure wins this season it has to enter January without any embarrassing losses. Something about this team suggests that won’t happen.