A Closer Examination of Florida’s Clutch Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 26th, 2017

It is only fitting that Florida‘s unexpected berth in the Elite Eight came from the most unlikely source. The Gators are on an improbable run, given very little chance by anyone to make it this far despite hanging out in rarefied air among the top four of the KenPom rankings. Even after holding Virginia to 0.65 points per possession in the Round of 32, still nobody expected the Gators to be the favorite in the East Region until late Friday night. After Canyon Barry chased down a sure Wisconsin bucket at the rim with a block that nobody knew he had in him, Chris Chiozza hit an epic buzzer-beater to beat the Badgers by one point. Chiozza was the hero nobody expected for the team nobody thought would still be playing.

Chris Chiozza hits a miraculous buzzer beater.

Every point scored in basketball counts the same, but we tend to place more significance on time and place. Chiozza’s miraculous shot couldn’t have come at a better spot for either qualifier. Clutch performances are part of what makes March special, and Chiozza came up with the biggest clutch shot of 2017. We examine Florida’s clutch play this season to determine if the Gators have another big shot left in them.

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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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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Arkansas 65

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2017

While this game was close for most of the first half, a late surge by hot-shooting Kentucky (60.7% FG) pushed the Wildcats to what would prove to be an insurmountable 12-point halftime lead. The win gave Kentucky its remarkable 17th SEC Tournament title since the event was restarted in its current form in 1979.

Key Takeaways

Bam Adebayo is big reason Kentucky captured its third SEC title in a row on Sunday.

  1. Kentucky’s Improved Defense. Kentucky struggled to defend in late January, causing many to wonder if this year’s version of the Wildcats would ever improve enough to be taken seriously as a Final Four contender. That has changed in the six weeks since, as John Calipari‘s young team has answered affirmatively in resounding fashion. In its three games in Nashville this weekend, Kentucky was incredibly stingy on the defensive end, with a particular emphasis on guarding opponents beyond the arc. In Friday’s quarterfinal match-up with Georgia, the Bulldogs made only 5-of-16 three-point attempts. Alabama was even more dreadful in Saturday’s semifinal (3-for-14 3FG). Sunday brought more of the same, as Arkansas shot a woeful 4-of-18 from beyond the arc. The Wildcats also effectively bottled up Arkansas’ best shooter, Dusty Hannahs, who made only one three on the day and was largely a non-factor.
  2. A Balanced Performance. Kentucky clearly had a better bench than Arkansas on Sunday afternoon. Nine Wildcats scored, including a solid 14-point game from senior Dominique Hawkins (who averages only 3.9 points per contest). Hawkins was one of four double-figure scorers for Kentucky, which shot 48.2 percent from the field and dominated the glass (+14). For its part, Arkansas received 18 points off the bench from guard Daryl Macon, but he was the only Razorback reserve with more than a single point.
  3. The Beat Goes on in Nashville. The SEC Tournament has become very routine over the last several years. In the third season in a row the event was held in Nashville, it became the third year in a row that Kentucky waltzed to a championship. A case can be made that the Wildcats have just as much of a home court advantage in the Music City nowadays as they do in Rupp Arena. The good news for Big Blue Nation is that, after the SEC Tournament takes a one-year turn in St. Louis in 2018, it returns to Nashville for another three-year run. Based upon the way things have gone in this conference, Wildcat fans might as well book their hotel rooms and put in their ticket orders for long weekend stays from 2019-21.

Star of the GameDominique Hawkins. A case could be made for Bam Adebayo, who contributed one of his best performances of the year, but Hawkins was his usual disruptive self on defense as well as very productive on the offensive end. The senior provided an emotional spark in the early going, getting the partisan crowd fully engaged and allowing the Wildcats to break out to a double-figure halftime lead.

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Will Vanderbilt’s Late Season Turnaround Result in an SEC Title?

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2017

Coming into the SEC Tournament, most of the discussion surrounding Vanderbilt centered on the 17-14 Commodores potentially becoming the first at-large selection with 15 losses in the history of the NCAA Tournament. By most accounts, they were either on the right side of the bubble or solidly in the field. Given how well Bryce Drew‘s team has performed over its first two games of the tournament, Vanderbilt has erased any doubt about whether they will make next week’s Field of 68. As a matter of fact, many observers are now questioning whether that 15th loss will even come this weekend, as the Commodores winning the SEC’s automatic bid is no longer out of the question.

Bryce Drew has engineered a stunning turnaround in his first season in Nashville (thesportsbank.net)

Vanderbilt’s resurgence over the past month to become the SEC’s fifth NCAA Tournament team has been nothing short of remarkable. After a 20-point beatdown at the hands of lowly Missouri on February 11, the Commodores stood at a middling 12-13 overall (5-7 SEC). Not only did an NCAA Tournament bid seem like a laughable proposition; even the NIT seemed anything but a sure thing. From that point on, though, Drew’s defense has shown dramatic improvement in winning seven of eight games, with the only loss coming at Kentucky in a game they led by double-figures in the second half. This is clearly not the same team that lost four of its first five SEC home games and got taken to the woodshed in Columbia.

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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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Reassessing the SEC as Conference Play Looms

Posted by David Changas on December 29th, 2016

Today brings the rare pre-New Year’s Day start to SEC play, with Georgia-Auburn tipping off at 7:00 PM ET and two orther games on tap. Now that most of the league has completed its pre-conference schedule, let’s reassess expectations for how things will play out over the next two-plus months.

The Favorite

  • Just as in the preseason, Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC. The Wildcats were beaten twice in December (UCLA and Louisville) but showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The objective for John Calipari’s club over the next 10 weeks is to position itself to as a #1 seed in the Big Dance.
John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

As usual, John Calipari and Kentucky are the heavy favorites to win the SEC (cbssports.com).

The NCAA Tournament Contenders

  • Florida has been a bit better than expected, with its three losses coming against top-10 teams Gonzaga and Duke along with archrival Florida State. The Gators should coast to an NCAA bid by racking up plenty of wins in a relatively weak league. They will have a tough start to conference play tonight, though, as they travel to …
  • Arkansas, which has exceeded all expectations in getting off to an 11-1 start. The Razorbacks will still need a strong showing in SEC play to secure their place in the Big Dance, but a finish higher than fifth, which is what the media predicted in the preseason, seems very attainable.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise in the SEC so far has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have played stifling defense on their way to a 10-2 start against a strong schedule. They currently rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and, although they have lost a couple of games since Sindarius Thornwell was suspended, they appear significantly better than where the media expected them in the preseason (eighth place).
  • Texas A&M doesn’t have many quality wins to date, but given its talent base, anything less than an NCAA bid will be a major disappointment for Billy Kennedy’s squad. Expect A&M to win a lot of games in SEC play.

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