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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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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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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SEC Team Capsules: The Top Tier (#4-#1)

Posted by David Changas on November 11th, 2016

Per usual in the SEC, there is very little question that Kentucky is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the league. While there is always some early-season speculation about how things will turn out, there is often little doubt that the Wildcats will roll into Nashville as the #1 seed at the SEC Tournament. We finish our capsule-sized preview of the league with a look at of course Kentucky, but also the three teams with the best shot of dethroning the SEC giant. Within the last week we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10) as well as the middle tier (#9-#5). Today we tackle the top tier.

No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 28-9 (13-5)
  • Key returnee – Tyler Davis, 11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG
  • Key newcomer – J.C. Hampton, graduate transfer from Lipscomb
  • Team Analysis: The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, including their two leading scorers, Danuel House and Jalen Jones. But along with Davis, a preseason all-SEC selection who has a great chance to break out, and guard D.J. Hogg, expectations remain high in Aggie-land. Anything short of a return to the Big Dance this season will be a disappointment.
  • Burning QuestionCan Davis make the jump? Texas A&M had the luxury of two great scorers in House and Jones last season, but the 6’10” center Davis benefited most from an experienced point guard (Alex Caruso) who could deliver the ball to him in positions that allowed him to be effective. Much more will be expected from the sophomore this year, and for Texas A&M to come through on expectations, Davis will have to become one of the elite players in the SEC.

No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

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Why Each SEC team Will Advance to the Second Weekend… and Why They Won’t

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 15th, 2016

After watching five teams head to the Big Dance a year ago (including one eventual Final Four participant), the SEC managed just three bids in a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Honestly, the league was lucky to get to three. While some teams have to feel pretty good about where they landed (Texas A&M is a #3 seed?!), others should feel happy to be invited (welcome Vanderbilt!), and still others can rest comfortably knowing that the committee didn’t have the option to send them to Alaska to face the Golden State Warriors (Hey Kentucky, Des Moines, Iowa, is supposed to be nice this time of year). Now that the brackets are set, will the SEC continue to disappoint, or might we see one of these three teams still standing in the Sweet Sixteen? Here are some quick reasons why each team will advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and some equally compelling reasons why they won’t:

Kentucky's offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari

Kentucky’s offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari.

Kentucky

Why the Wildcats will advance to the second weekend: Kentucky’s backcourt is playing very well on offense right now, moving the Wildcats into the top spot for offensive efficiency nationally over the weekend. Tyler Ulis has the ability to carry the team for stretches on his 5’9” frame, but with the added marksmanship of shooting guard Jamal Murray and a front line that provide spot duty, the Wildcats are scoring better than any other team in the John Calipari era. In the first two games of the SEC Tournament, Kentucky scored at the second and third most efficient clips per 100 possessions of his tenure. The last time the Cats met up with possible Second Round opponent Indiana in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, it was a high scoring affair — Kentucky should feel comfortable in entering into a shootout with any team in the nation.

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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Texas A&M 77 (OT)

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

  1. Ulis was the difference. Jamal Murray struggled more than he had in quite a while, as his 20-point game streak came to an end at 11 (he still had 17). His backcourt mate, Tyler Ulis, however, was there to pick up the slack. Ulis not only led Kentucky with 30 points, but also delivered the crucial baskets for the Wildcats. Ulis is able to penetrate and find good looks better than just about anyone we’ve seen at his size; in a game that was close the entire way, Ulis was the clear difference. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine Kentucky being in position to garner a #3 seed or making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. This was a quality SEC basketball game. The hoops side of the SEC gets made fun of plenty, and often rightfully so. This is a league that could get only two of its 14 members into the NCAA Tournament — an unfathomable consideration for a power five conference. But these two teams were anything but embarrassing today. Kentucky is the SEC constant and have dealt with a revolving door of challengers through the year; the Aggies are the newest one, and their balance, experience, and overall talent that was on display this weekend should not be taken lightly in the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a shame there aren’t more such teams in the conference.
  3. Texas A&M acted like it had been here before. Despite the loss, the Aggies showed they belonged. Texas A&M is not used to being on this stage, but that certainly did not show. Senior Danuel House was exceptional for the Aggies in scoring a game-high 32 points, including the tying bucket that sent the game to overtime. Four seniors who log a lot of minutes will be gone next season, but the future is bright for Billy Kennedy’s program, as freshmen Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, and DJ Hogg showed strong signs that they will be able to grow into more prominent roles next season. It’s quite clear why Kennedy was given a five-year contract extension yesterday.

Star of the Game. Tyler Ulis. This was a no-brainer, as was Ulis’s selection as tournament MVP. Still, it simply can’t be overstated how good the sophomore guard was today. He had several critical drives for baskets during regulation, and he helped UK begin overtime on the right track with a three after a quick move forced his defender to fall down. Ulis vindicated his selection as both conference player of the year and defensive player of the year with a tremendous final week in the SEC.

Quotable.

  • “You’ve got to give Kentucky credit. They made the big shots to win the game.” – Billy Kennedy, on the difference in Sunday’s game.
  • “He’s played three straight days without coming out and he could probably play 40 more minutes right now if he needed to.” – Alex Caruso, on one of the things that makes Tyler Ulis special.
  • “We’re still not where we want to be defensively, but this team has gotten better all year. We’re finally healthy so when guys don’t play well, you look for the next man.” – John Calipari, on the improvement of his team.

Sights and Sounds. As it always is at the SEC Tournament, this was a de facto home game for the Wildcats. Big Blue Nation accounted for at least 95% of the fans in attendance, with Kentucky superfan Ashley Judd among them. Kennedy admitted after the game that the crowd was a big advantage for the Wildcats. “We knew that we were playing in basically Rupp Arena,” he said. Some things never change.

What’s Next. Both teams will await word from the Selection Committee as to where they go next. It’s reasonable to believe both will receive a 4-seed or better. While Kentucky may have improved its seeding with the performance this weekend, it’s hard to imagine that Texas A&M did anything in defeat that would harm its standing. The SEC may only get two teams into the Big Dance, but they’ll both be very tough outs.

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Kentucky Needs More Post Production For Deep March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

Given the way Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have played over the last couple of months, there really can’t be much debate about whether Kentucky has the best backcourt in the country. In Saturday’s thrilling 93-80 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Georgia, Ulis and Murray combined for 51 points — the 11th consecutive game in which Murray had scored 20 points or more. The Wildcats also got a strong second half performance from Isaiah Briscoe, something upon which they haven’t been able to regularly rely. Everyone knows that good guard play is an important key to a deep NCAA Tournament run, and Kentucky’s recent performance bodes well for John Calipari‘s surging team.

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

If Kentucky is going to be a legitimate Final Four contender, the Wildcats are going to need more production from their big men. Things have definitely improved in that regard, as Skal Labissiere put together a couple of solid performances to end the regular season, Alex Poythress has shown signs of returning to his old form after fighting nagging injuries, and Derek Willis has also shown flashes of excellent play (even if much of his offensive damage he does comes from the perimeter). Kentucky beat Georgia on the strength of its backcourt — the three starting guards combined for 63 points — while Poythress (10 points, all in the second half) and Willis (14 points) had solid offensive performances of their own. Talented NCAA Tournament opponents that are more capable of neutralizing the Wildcats’ prolific backcourt are going to have a chance to beat them. Each of the team’s eight losses have come in games in which the front line was not very productive.

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Tyler Ulis Defies Expectations, Sets Sights on NBA

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

When Tyler Ulis signed with Kentucky two years ago, many believed that, for the first time in a long time, John Calipari had a four-year player at the point. Going back to his days at Memphis, Calipari had coached a string of one-and-done phenoms at the position like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquise Teague. Ulis was different. At 5’9″, he certainly didn’t project very well to the next level, and the idea was that he would stick around Lexington as a solid floor general until graduation day. The only problem is that someone forgot to tell Ulis. Last night, before Kentucky’s 85-59 dismantling of Alabama in its first SEC Tournament game, Calipari announced that Ulis has already made the decision to leave school early for the NBA after this season concludes.

Tyler Ulis Willl Ride an All-American Season into the NBA (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis Willl Ride an All-American Season into the NBA (USA Today Images)

As a freshman on last season’s uber-talented roster, Ulis was more of a contributor than anyone expected, playing as many minutes as anyone on the team by the end of the season. His numbers (5.6 PPG; 3.6 APG) weren’t anything special, but nobody’s on the 38-1 “platoon” squad were either. Ulis came into his sophomore year with much higher expectations, but no one foresaw just how good he turned out to be. In a league that boasts the likely top pick in the NBA Draft (Ben Simmons) and another top-three pick in a teammate (Jamal Murray), Ulis was the consensus SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. It wasn’t just his 16.6 PPG or league-leading 7.3 assists per contest. It was the way he proved capable of taking over a game like few diminutive players can. He always seems to hit the big shot, make the big steal, or dish out the big assist. Along with Murray, he has carried a Kentucky team that has, extensively at times, shown significant deficiencies in the post.

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Freeze Frame: Tracking Jamal Murray

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 3rd, 2016

Jamal Murray had quite the month of February. The Kentucky freshman scored at least 20 points in eight consecutive outings and averaged an insane 26.4 points per game over that stretch, giving him the highest scoring average by a Wildcat for a month since Jodie Meeks torched opponents in January 2009 for 28.0 PPG. Murray’s tear through conference play included a 35-point performance against Florida on February 6, and a 33-point effort at Vanderbilt on February 27.

Murray hits bullseye more often than not (247 sports).

Murray hits his target more often than not (247 sports).

While Murray has been especially hot over the past month, he has been impressive all season. His scoring average of 19.9 PPG ranks third in the SEC and second in the country among freshman. If it holds, he would set a new school freshman record and would represent the highest for any player under head coach John Calipari at Kentucky. And it seems that he is picking up where he left off in March, notching 21 more points against Florida on Tuesday night. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze how Murray freed himself up for open shots against the Gators earlier this week.

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