Kentucky Basketball: Why the Wildcats Aren't as Bad as You Think

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Kentucky Basketball: Why the Wildcats Aren't as Bad as You Think
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

The perception of Kentucky this season could change over the next couple weeks with the ultimate test waiting on Feb. 12 with a trip to No. 4 Florida. 

It might not be necessary to wait, however. The Wildcats are beginning to look like a legitimate top 25 team again—and may be better than that.

For a small sample size, look at Tuesday's 87-74 win at No. 16 Ole Miss that included a dominant performance on one end by Nerlens Noel (12 blocks) and a clinic on the other end by Kyle Wiltjer (26 points and three assists). 

The larger sample size tells a different story, particularly if we're just looking at the Wildcats' 14-6 record. That's disappointing, at least by Kentucky standards, particularly after the dominant season from start to finish a year ago.

But how quickly we forget that two seasons ago John Calipari had a team that started 16-6 and 4-4 in the SEC and eventually went on to play in the Final Four. 

That was a team that started two freshmen—this one starts three—and had two players who were part of the rotation the year before. This team has one. 

Can these Wildcats make a similar late-season push? 

Let's dissect. 

 

Reason to Believe No. 1: Calipari's Offense is Trending Upwards

Kentucky's offensive output against Ole Miss was the best against Andy Kennedy's defense this season. It was the Wildcats' most efficient game in SEC play, but this wasn't just a team that got hot on one night. 

Kentucky is one of the SEC's best offensive teams thus far.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Consider that the Cats had the second-most efficient performance against Texas A&M's defense, the second-most efficient output against Auburn's defense and the fifth-best against LSU's defense last Saturday. The Cats lost the Texas A&M game, but that was all on the defense, which we'll get to later. 

It's also unfair to judge the Kentucky offense before point guard Ryan Harrow came into the mix after missing four games and playing a limited role until mid-December.

Since Harrow joined the starting lineup on Dec. 15, Kentucky has scored better than 1.07 points per possession in nine of 11 games. 

Last season, Kentucky had the second-most efficient offense in the country, and the numbers for this year's team almost mirror the championship squad.

 

 

2-point FG%

3-point FG%

Effective FG%

Turnover %

2012-13

53.8

35.6

53.7

18.5

2011-12

52.7

37.8

52.8

17.0

Here's the big difference:

2012-13 free-throw shooting: 64.3 percent
2011-12 free-throw shooting: 72.3 percent

In a 80-77 loss to Louisville, Kentucky went 11-of-23 at the line. In a 59-55 loss at Alabama last week, the Cats went 6-of-11. Even Tuesday night's win against Ole Miss could have been by a larger margin if Kentucky doesn't miss 14 free throws. 

It's the worst free throw shooting team Calipari has had since his 2008 Memphis squad, whose poor free-throw shooting has a place in history. (Mario Chalmers says thanks.)

There's really no fix to solve this problem; however, there's reason to believe Kentucky's offense will continue to improve, and that reason goes by Kyle Wiltjer. The sophomore forward is Kentucky's most-efficient scorer, and he's had double-digit field-goal attempts in four of the last five games. 

Calipari seems to be using more ball screens this season with the absence of a dominant point guard, and Wiltjer is the perfect pick-and-pop weapon. 

Against Ole Miss, Calipari ran sets that isolated Wiltjer on one side of the court by using him as a ball-screener or by running action that led to a Wiltjer shot. 

This first clip sees Wiltjer set a ball screen for Harrow and then pop to the right wing with the opportunity to take his man one-on-one. 

In this next clip, Wiltjer is first used as a screener, setting a pick for Jon Wood to make a flex cut. This is essentially a decoy screen as it distracts Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway into looking at the ball and staying back to help in the paint. Wiltjer is freed for a wide open three when Jarrod Polson sets a down screen. 

Wiltjer's recent surge not coincidentally has occurred since Willie Cauley-Stein injured his knee against Tennessee, increasing Wiltjer's minutes. 

Cauley-Stein's defense and rebounding are missed, but it could be a blessing in disguise for Kentucky's offense if that's what it took to get Calipari to give Wiltjer more minutes. His 19 shots against Ole Miss were a season high, and Kentucky's 87 points were the most scored against a major-conference opponent this year.  

 

Reason to Believe No. 2: Kentucky's Defense Has Potential to be Dominant

The main part of the equation for a successful Calipari team is a great defense. 

Once again, the defensive numbers this year for Kentucky nearly mirror last season.  

 

2-point FG%

3-point FG%

Effective FG%

Turnover %

2012-13

40.7

30.7

42.1

19.1

2011-12

39.6

31.8

42.0

17.6

Kentucky's defense has taken a step back in SEC play. The Cats are allowing 0.98 points per trip, which ranks sixth in the league. However, there's one game that pushes Kentucky down the rankings, and that was the loss to Texas A&M. 

Calipari admitted to the Associated Press that he made a mistake in that game by starting Alex Poythress on Texas A&M leading scorer Elston Turner, and Turner ended up dropping 40 points on the Cats. 

If you take out the A&M game, Kentucky is holding SEC opponents to a more respectable 0.93 points per possession, which would rank second in the league behind Florida. 

With Harrow and Julius Mays in the backcourt, the Wildcats' perimeter defenders are not as strong as what Calipari is used to putting on the court, but he still has a freakish athlete protecting the rim. 

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

That would be Noel, who has 45 blocks in Kentucky's last six games. The most blocks Anthony Davis had last year over a six-game stretch was 34. 

Noel's range and ability to leave his man at the last minute to block a shot allows his guards to make some defensive mistakes. 

With the big man finding his groove on the defensive end, it's becoming increasingly difficult to score around the rim, and that might be the scariest thing about this Kentucky team come March.  

 

What's Kentucky's Ceiling?

After Tuesday night's win, the talk of whether Kentucky is even an NCAA Tournament team should cool. 

The Wildcats are young, and it's not unfair to say they've been inconsistent, but the same could have been said midway through 2011 and that team won 10 straight games at the end of the year before losing to eventual champion Connecticut by one point in the Final Four. 

Since 2006, Calipari's teams have lost only eight games in February and March.

Translation: His teams always get better late in the year. 

This one should be no different. And when you factor in that the Wildcats are probably better than their record already, they should evolve over the next few months into the team that many expected them to be before the season began.  

 

All advanced statistics used in this piece come from KenPom.com.

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