Kentucky will be fine this season. The team will still win 20-plus games, contend for the SEC title and should garner a top seed in the NCAA tournament. This is all very typical for John Calipari.
But this Wildcat team does have its flaws and some key inconsistencies have been highlighted during UK’s past several games, including against UCLA and Arizona State. Could we be looking at a squad more reminiscent of 2013 (when UK lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT) than of any other Wildcat bunch?
Find some offensive balance
The team is sputtering with the ball, scoring 1.11 points per possession the prior three games. For other teams, that rate might be cause for jubilation, but for the Wildcats, it’s concerning. One cause is the squad’s lack of perimeter shooting. This has dogged Calipari-coached UK teams in past seasons, but no other group of Wildcats has both attempted so few threes (27.4 percent) and converted a similarly low clip (27.6 percent).
Other scoring concerns are a bit more pressing. Because opponents realize they can defend the Wildcats with one foot inside the three-point line, those teams have begun packing the interior and forcing the trio of UK guards — Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, and Jamal Murray — to navigate tight corners and find their frontcourt teammates amid increased traffic. According to Hoop-Math.com, the team attempts nearly 40 percent of its shots around the rim, and is making 68.2 percent of those field goals — which, again, is an impressive rate, but for a team that was said to thrive on efficiently connecting around the rim, UK needs to finish better.
Calipari has tried to create some offensive ball spacing through perimeter weaving, pick and rolls, and ball screens around the free throw line. Because teams don’t have to close out quickly for fear of the three-ball, opponents can flat hedge those picks and force UK to dribble-drive and try to score at the rim. Briscoe might be the team’s most athletic and explosive guard, but he isn’t a perimeter threat in the least. He rarely spots up, preferring to head fake and then attack the basket. But that predictability (even when he does unfurl from deep, he’s making a quarter of those shots) has hurt the offense.
Where is the rim protection?
Kentucky possesses some of the nation’s most athletic bigs, but opponents are finding it quite easy to score within a few feet of the bucket in 2016. Past Kentucky teams had no problem imposing their will on opponents’ attempts — even when a UK big wasn’t in a position to block a shot, an opposing player would still quickly swivel his head to see if a white (or blue) jersey was lurking — but that has been lacking through the first 10 games.
Yes, the team blocks 15 percent of those attempts, but in the halfcourt, those opponents attempt 36 percent of their shots in the paint (an uptick from 2015) and convert roughly 50 percent of those looks (another bump from ’15). Teams have neutralized Kentucky’s fearsome bigs through a reliance on pick and roll offense — roughly 16 percent of opponents’ plays, per Synergy, are the result of PnR, which not only creates pull-up opportunities and defensive gaps, it pulls Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress away from the basket.
To create some semblance of a post offense, Calipari has to play Labissiere, but that has a price on the defensive end. While the 6-foot-11 freshman is a skilled shotblocker (9.2 percent block rate), he is a poor defensive rebounder, so once an opposing big draws him away from the rim, he is effectively shut down from making a defensive play. Poythress and Lee are both capable interior defenders, but that hinders the offense. Per Ken Pomeroy, a lineup with Lee and Poythress is used on nearly 10 percent of UK’s possessions, but the duo has only attempted 14 percent of the team’s two-point field goals when on the court.
Overall the defense needs to be addressed. This season’s Kentucky team allows opponents to make 44.3 percent of their twos, which is the second-highest percentage since Calipari trekked to the SEC. Calipari’s hallmark is recruiting, but his winning percentage is based on defense, and the Wildcats are still out of step on that side of the ball.
Who else helps Jamal Murray?
Much has been made about Labissiere’s delayed Division I adjustment — the big has been a non-factor offensively during the last five games (just 20 two-point field goal attempts) — and looks overmatched on the interior. But Murray, the much-hyped 6-4 Canadian import, has had his own difficulties.
Since dropping 21 points on South Florida in late November, Murray had made 33 percent of his shots within the arc and 34 percent of his threes. Some of these shots have been open looks, but many are highly contested. He scores 0.81 points per guarded jump shot, and when coupled with his inaccuracy, it is a challenge for a player who attempts nearly a third of his shots in spot up possessions.
Part of the issue is the other Wildcats are having difficulty maintaining any offensive momentum. Ulis has battled injuries and isn’t hitting at the same rate from three as he did a year ago, and the team’s flow is clearly off-kilter in the halfcourt (a greater percentage of attempts — 12.1 percent — come within the final seconds of the shot clock than previous seasons).
The combination of defensive inexperience and scoring malaise has hampered Kentucky so far, but as Calipari has had to regroup, reteach, and reform countless squads chock full of players right out of high school, it might not be an issue that dooms the Wildcats. But this won’t be as comfortable a ride to the NCAA tournament as the team, and its fan base, usually expect.