Analyzing Kentucky’s Improved Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 22nd, 2017

Kentucky scored at least 100 points five separate times this year so it is no surprise that the Wildcats’ offense has grabbed most of the headlines. When the season was on the line on Sunday afternoon, however, it was instead a strong defensive performance that propelled John Calipari‘s club into the Sweet Sixteen. In a season-low 62-possession grinder with the Shockers, the Wildcats proved they can win with defense by shutting down one of the 10 best offenses in college basketball.

For reference on the defensive score sheet, refer to this previous post — http://rushthecourt.net/2012/04/10/charting-kentuckys-defense-in-the-championship-game/

Kentucky quietly owns a top 10 team defense (eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom), and it will need it to continue improving if this season is going to be extended. With UCLA looming and a potential Elite Eight matchup with North Carolina beyond that, the Wildcats will need to do better than allowing 97 points and 1.17 points per possession (PPP) to the Bruins and a season-high 100 points and 1.27 PPP to the Tar Heels.

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Three Takeaways from Kentucky’s Big Win Over Florida

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 27th, 2017

The SEC regular season championship was most likely on the line Saturday when SEC co-leaders Kentucky and Florida met in Lexington. Both teams entered the game at 13-2 in conference play (23-5 overall), but somewhat trending in opposite directions. The Gators entered Rupp Arena on a nine-game winning streak, including an 88-66 shellacking of the Wildcats in Gainesville. Kentucky, on the other hand, had lost three of four in late January and early February before putting together a shakier five-game winning streak that included tougher than expected games against SEC doormats LSU and Missouri. In the end, the blue mist of Rupp Arena worked its magic, as Kentucky rode Malik Monk to the 30 second-half points to prevail with a 76-66 victory. With one week left in the regular season, this game effectively decided the SEC regular season crown, but it also told us a lot about what we can expect from the SEC’s best this postseason. Here are three takeaways from this weekend’s game.

Malik Monk is heating up (photo via The Big Lead).

1. Malik Monk can shoot Kentucky into the Final Four. It is rare for the Big Blue Nation to be critical of its Wildcats, but Kentucky fans have been overly pessimistic lately about the likelihood of John Calipari advancing to his fifth Final Four in the last seven years. It is easy to see why. Kentucky’s tendency to become offensively stagnant because of its inconsistent three-point shooting means even its wins are not coming easily. The first half on Saturday was more of the same, with the Wildcats shooting less than 30 percent from the field. Then Monk happened. The gifted freshman blew up to score 30 of his game-high 33 points in the second half, proving once again that Kentucky is never out of a game so long as he is on the floor. The scary part for the rest of college basketball is that Monk has gotten even more dangerous since conference play began. His three-point shooting percentage has increased to 45 percent in SEC play (from 42 percent on the entire season) and he is drawing an absurd 6.0 fouls per game. Monk’s rapidly developing arsenal as more than just a catch-and-shoot player could make him unstoppable down the stretch. Calipari would love to find some additional offensive consistency outside of Monk (Bam Adebayo could be the answer), but the freshman is already good enough to carry the Wildcats for long periods as it is.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Reboot

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 16th, 2017

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.

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Keep Hope Alive: The Importance of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 27th, 2017

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?

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Freeze Frame: Alabama’s BLOB Plays

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 18th, 2017

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 »

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Early Offense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 6th, 2017

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.

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Freeze Frame: Tennessee’s Failed Offensive Execution

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 14th, 2016

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 2016-17. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images)

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 »

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Achilles Heel

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 7th, 2016

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 the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

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.

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Freeze Frame: Just How Good Is South Carolina?

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 1st, 2016

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.

Coach Frank Martin and his Gamecocks are defensive stalwarts.

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.
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Freeze Frame: Arkansas’ Transition Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 21st, 2016

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.

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.

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