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.

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing... (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Has No Problem Finishing… But What About Shooting? (USA Today Images)

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.

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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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John Egbunu is Florida’s Underappreciated Anchor

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 8th, 2016

In a world of highlight reel plays and attention-grabbing statistical lines, there’s a lost appreciation for the cornerstone of every defense: the rim-protector. Basketball at the professional level, and increasingly the collegiate one, has undergone a dramatic shift to small-ball lineups with an emphasis on spacing the floor and shooting. As a result, premium talent is moving farther away from the rim as players develop and refine their jump shots and ball-handling abilities. And who doesn’t enjoy watching players like 6’6″ Luke Kennard play the role of a stretch four at Duke, creating an immediate defensive headache in most switching scenarios. But amid all of this, hidden in plain sight, is the prototypical big man — the player who does a lot of the dirty work on the boards, helping off his assignment to contest a shot or fighting for another possession. Florida junior center John Egbunu epitomizes this player.

John Egbunu's Defense (USA Today Images)

John Egbunu’s Defense Makes Florida a Dangerous Team (USA Today Images)

At 6’11 and 255 pounds, Egbunu is not easily pushed around on the block, making well-positioned entry passes difficult to establish. This aspect alone provides tremendous value, but perhaps more importantly, Egbunu possesses a keen sense of timing with shot-blocking. The big man has nearly doubled his block rate this season (from 5.5 to 10.7 percent) and is averaging 4.2 blocks per 40 minutes (32nd nationally). As the below clip shows, in addition to generating a fair number of his blocks with help defense, he moves well enough laterally to stay with his man on dribble penetration.

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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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Stifling Defense Leads South Carolina to Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on November 30th, 2016

South Carolina was bitterly disappointed to not make the NCAA Tournament last season after posting a 23-8 overall record, and given the departures of three key contributors from that squad — Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas — not much was expected this season. Based upon last week’s thrashing of two Top 25 teams, however, expectations in Columbia have quickly recalibrated. On Thanksgiving Eve, the Gamecocks allowed Michigan to make only eight two-point field goals on their way to a 61-46 trouncing of the Wolverines. For anyone who may have thought that home win was a fluke, South Carolina then waltzed into the Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon and similarly throttled previously-undefeated Syracuse — again giving up only eight two-point field goals — on its way to a 64-50 manhandling of the Orange.

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

Sindarius Thornwell is has been a breakout player for South Carolina. (heraldonline.com)

Frank Martin clubs define themselves on the defensive end, and this team’s success in that regard has been staggering. The Gamecocks currently rank 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and have had only one game — a season-opening 85-76 win over Louisiana Tech — in which they have given up more than a point per possession (PPP). In contrast, Michigan garnered only 0.74 points per possession while Syracuse’s output at 0.77 points per possession was only slightly less dreadful. The Gamecocks have routinely been one of the SEC’s most efficient defensive teams since Martin’s arrival four years ago, but given his roster’s attrition, no one saw this level of production coming. An overtime one-point win over Monmouth may have initially indicated that the Gamecocks could be in for a long year, but last week’s resume-boosters should serve them well on Selection Sunday. December games with Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis should also help. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part II

Posted by David Changas on November 24th, 2016

Earlier this week, we took a look at four SEC teams in action at various tournaments around the country. Today we’ll take another look at three other teams that will be in action over the next few days (we won’t mention LSU, which was blown out by Wichita State in its opening round matchup of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday).

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been as good as expected so far for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

  • Advocare Invitational (Lake Buena Vista, FL) – Florida. The Gators have easily disposed of four solid opponents in racing to a 4-0 start. They have been good on both ends of the floor and rank as the nation’s 11th best team overall, per KenPom. Things will get tougher today when Florida faces the defending Big East champion, Seton Hall. The Pirates are off to a 3-0 start of their own, including a nice win at Iowa. The teams appear to be evenly matched, and it should be a terrific game. Florida has thus far benefited from the solid production of graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who leads the team in scoring (13.3 PPG) off the bench. The Gators are also getting excellent play from Devin Robinson and preseason all-SEC pick KeyVaughn Allen, but could use more consistency from point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. If the Gators can beat the Pirates, they could earn an interesting match-up with Gonzaga in the semifinals, with Iowa State after that. So while Florida is off to a great start so far, we will know a lot more about the Gators after this weekend.

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Quinndary Weatherspoon Injury a Crippling Blow to Mississippi State

Posted by David Changas on November 23rd, 2016

Mississippi State announced Monday night that its leading scorer, Quinndary Weatherspoon, will require surgery after tearing ligaments in his left wrist and miss the remainder of the season. The sophomore is the team’s leading scorer (18.8 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (5.0 RPG) through four games, notching a career-high 25 points in last Friday’s win over Boise State. His loss is a big blow to a Bulldogs team that was expected to finish in the middle of the SEC pack under second-year head coach Ben Howland. Even though an earlier blowout loss to Central Florida confirmed that the rebuilding process is ongoing, losing the cornerstone of that process is tough in the wake of last year’s graduations (Gavin Ware and Craig Sword) and transfer (Malik Newman to Kansas).

The loss of Quinndary Weatherspoon is a huge blow for Mississippi State (Gary Rohman/USA Today Sports).

The loss of Quinndary Weatherspoon is a huge blow for Mississippi State (Gary Rohman/USA Today Sports).

With Weatherspoon out for the remainder of the year, Howland will need even more from his three top-100 freshmen: Tyson Carter, Mario Kegler, and Lamar Peters. Carter, a 6’4″ guard, is off to a nice start, hitting 11 of 25 three-pointers and committing only one turnover in 122 minutes of action. Kegler, a 6’7″ forward who already played 25 minutes per game, will see his playing time increase in Weatherspoon’s absence. Peters has played less than his fellow freshmen, but he has been solid in backing up the team’s only senior,I.J. Ready. The only player other than Weatherspoon who came into this season with any real experience, the diminutive point guard leads the team in assists (5.0 APG) and has a fairly low turnover rate (10.9%), but he struggles defending bigger guards and is a poor shooter from beyond the arc (27.3%). It is unlikely that he will be able to pick up the Bulldogs’ scoring slack.

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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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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part I

Posted by David Changas on November 21st, 2016

With one of the best weeks of the college basketball season now upon us, we offer Part I of our preview of what’s ahead for SEC teams headed to the various holiday tournaments around the country. This post will focus on the events beginning today and Tuesday.

Rick Barnes and Tennessee have a tough road ahead in Maui… and beyond. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images)

  • Maui Jim Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI) – Tennessee. The Volunteers’ season got off to a rough start with a home loss to Chattanooga on opening night, but they now sit at 1-1 after an easy subsequent win over lowly Appalachian State. In Maui, however, Tennessee will get started with a bite than may be bigger than Rick Barnes’ squad can chew. The Vols open with a savvy, veteran Wisconsin team that is likely to give its offense fits. The Vols’ second game of the tournament on Tuesday will either be against a top-10 Oregon team that could have preseason All-American Dillon Brooks back in action, or a Georgetown team that will be desperate after a couple of early losses. There is a strong likelihood that the Vols will drop their first two games, with their only realistic chance for a win on the islands coming against non-Division I host Chaminade on Wednesday.

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