For one of the few times since Coach John Calipari arrived at Kentucky before the 2010 season, his squad isn’t regarded as the prospective favorite for a national title. That isn’t to say that this 2018 squad won’t contend — the Wildcats were preseason picks to win the Southeastern Conference and are ranked in both of the season’s initial top 25 polls. But, in a switch, the conference’s most-hyped freshmen (such as Michael Porter Jr. and Collin Sexton, though the latter will miss at least one game for NCAA violations) won’t suit up for Big Blue Nation.
So why all the buzz surrounding Kentucky? It’s because even with the uncertainty of the group Calipari has assembled, this team has the components to do something special — operating an offense at a breakneck pace while playing stifling defense. Calipari is a master of understatement — he spends much of his pre- and postgame news conferences deflating his teams’ expectations — but three factors illustrate why this could be the one of Calipari’s best Kentucky teams:
* The lack of returning minutes means greater lineup diversity. No team has a lower percentage of returning minutes from last season — about 10 percent — than the Wildcats, and while some may see that lack of experience as a significant detriment, it affords Calipari the opportunity to tinker with all sorts of lineup formations. For as much as Calipari mentions platoons and players sacrificing minutes, typically more than 75 percent of the Wildcats’ possessions flow through just three or so players, as quantified by usage-rate metrics. This season, with Wenyen Gabriel as the sole Wildcat with much experience, it’s likely that the coaching staff will experiment for much of the regular season.
Gabriel, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, was the consummate teammate last season: Per Hooplens.com, his efficiency margin over the 1,200-plus possessions he played was plus 0.20 per possession, which ranked third on the team (behind De’Aaron Fox and Derek Willis, who both played significantly more possessions and now play professionally). Thanks to the length Calipari has at his disposal — Quade Green is the only starter under 6-4 — Kentucky can go bonkers with lineup adjustments. Want to see a roster with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, and Gabriel? That’s the five that started against Centre College, and it boasted an average wingspan longer 6-11.
If Calipari wants even greater length, he can sub in Sacha Killeya-Jones or Nick Richards, both who possess wingspans longer than 7-2. This roster is a coach’s dream, which should mean true minutes parity throughout the 2018 season. As Calipari mentioned in a preseason Q&A, “You may have a team of where it seems basketball is going to: No point guard, no center, just players.”
* Push the pace to counter an offensive malaise. Though Dan Hanner and Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated project seven Wildcats to post offensive ratings better than 1.05 points per possession (with Washington and Knox leading the squad with 1.16 PPP apiece), Kentucky’s offensive execution might not be pretty. The squad doesn’t have any consistent perimeter threats, and much of the scoring should come at the rim, which is why Calipari has spent much of this offseason explaining why his team intends to push the pace in 2018.
“I would say I’m trying to get [Quade] to play faster,” he told reporters. “Play faster, for him, may be [to] just give up the ball quicker. It’s not run down your neck. . . . If a guy is open, it’s quick. That’s playing fast. For him, that’s what we have to have him do. The reason is he’s got finishers and lane-drivers.”
The Wildcats have generally played at one of the slower paces in Division I, but starting last season, Calipari instructed his squad to attack in transition with greater frequency. Per KenPom.com, the team averaged 72 possessions per 40 minutes, the most since Calipari became Kentucky’s coach, and the squad scored more than 1.1 points per transition play (per Synergy Sports). Expect both those figures to skyrocket. The reason? As Calipari stated, his team is composed of players that excel finishing at the rim; it doesn’t have the playmakers or shooters to walk the ball up the court and orchestrate a play. Coupled with defensive intensity (more on that below) that should either gobble opponents’ misses or block them into the waiting hands of Kentucky guards, the squad needs to run to get the easy buckets that’ll charge its offense.
* This could be Calipari’s best defense. That isn’t a claim to take lightly. Only two of Calipari’s Kentucky teams allowed more than 0.95 of a point per possession, and defensive stinginess has long been one of his mantras. But this season’s squad will be a thicket of arms. It averaged more than 10 steals over three exhibition games, and should an opponent make it past the perimeter, the absurd length of the frontcourt ensures it will struggle to get a shot close to the rim. So while the Wildcats’ offense could be a significant work in progress, the defense is capable of carrying the team for long stretches. This could be the first season that the Wildcats not only have the nation’s best defensive efficiency rate but also top the country in block percentage. The last time that almost happened? Five years ago, when Kentucky defeated Kansas in the national title game.
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