Kentucky Basketball: Will Wildcats Play Fast This Year?

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Kentucky Basketball: Will Wildcats Play Fast This Year?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Kentucky coach John Calipari has the best talent, on paper, in the country, and he believes the perfect team to play up-tempo.

John Calipari wants to play fast. Actually, John Calipari knows Kentucky is going to play fast this season.

That's what the coach told CBSSports.com's Jon Rothstein:

What is the best way to play with this group? There's a lot of ways we can play. We're going to press a little bit more.

... I can't say right now that I know how we're going to play. I can't say we're going to do these drills or use this system. We know we're going to play fast. We know we're going to be a great defensive team. We know we're going to share the ball. We know we're going to use a little more dribble-drive.

So this makes sense, right? Calipari has athletes. He has depth. And doesn't Calipari always want his teams to play fast? 

Not exactly. Any other coach who says he wants to play fast this year should be met with some skepticism. 

The beauty of the era we live in is that we have statistics to answer the questions at our fingertips. Ken Pomeroy introduced a new stat this summer (average possession length) that gives us a pretty good indicator of whether a team is playing fast or not. 

Kentucky's Average Possession Length Under John Calipari
Avg. Poss. Length Rank NCAA Avg.
2012-13 17.4 106 18.1
2011-12 17.8 142 18.1
2010-11 18.3 219 17.9
2009-10 16.2 31 17.8

kenpom.com

The Wildcats are typically faster than average, but not exactly what could be defined as an uptempo bunch. 

Another way to answer whether a coach tries to play fast or prefers playing out a possession is how often his team takes a shot in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. 

This next chart featuring data from the last three years shows how often Kentucky attempted its initial shot in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. I used North Carolina as a comparison because Roy Williams' teams always look for early offense through the secondary break and UNC's numbers resemble those of a true uptempo team. 

Kentucky's Early Offense vs. North Carolina's Early Offense
Percentage of Shots in First 10 Seconds
Kentucky 2012-13 31
North Carolina 2012-13 36
Kentucky 2011-12 35
North Carolina 2011-12 48
Kentucky 2010-11 30
North Carolina 2010-11 43

Hoop-Math.com

 

Is This Kentucky Team Different from the Others? 

Calipari has had athletes before. He's had an elite point guard before. So why would this team be any different? 

The go-to answer here could be this team's depth. 

With the six incoming McDonald's All-Americans combined with sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, Calipari could have a solid eight-man rotation. 

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

You could make a case for a few others getting playing time—like senior Jon Hood—but as Calipari told Rothstein, he prefers to play seven guys and has traditionally kept his rotation to six or seven. 

So depth is not the answer. It's better to look at the talent, and what fits the talent. That's where Calipari can make his case that this team is different. 

It's no coincidence that Calipari's one UK team that has played faster than the others is the first. That team had point guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, two of the fastest players in college basketball at the time. 

Wall and Bledsoe allowed Calipari to often play with two point guards simultaneously, giving the Wildcats two outlet options. The same could be true for this team. Andrew Harrison is the point guard, but his brother Aaron has a similar skill set and is capable of playing the point. 

Exactly how fast Kentucky plays will depend a lot on how fast the Harrison twins are capable of playing. 

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky freshman Andrew Harrison is the next potentially great John Calipari-coached point guard.

But it's not just on the guards. To play fast, everyone needs to be committed. 

That said, it's not necessary for this team to play fast to be great. Calipari's best team didn't really dictate the pace. The 2012 championship team could pretty much win at whatever pace its opponent chose. During their tourney run that year, the 'Cats won uptempo games against Indiana and Baylor and then won a slower-paced game in the championship against Kansas. 

What allowed that team to play fast when it wanted to was its ability to create early offense off a defensive rebound. Calipari had two extremely quick big men in Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones, who could run the floor. 

It's the bigs on this team who make it logical to try to push the tempo.

Any lineups that include an inside combination of Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee or Alex Poythress should be able to beat opposing big men up the floor. 

It's also easier to press with fleet-footed bigs, and Calipari has four. Moreover, pressure defense can help create early offense. 

So when Calipari says UK is going to press more, it makes sense. When he says the 'Cats are going to play fast, it makes sense. But until we actually see it, I'll automatically read those types of quotes with a "try to" inserted before the statement. 

"We're going to try to press a little bit more. We know we're going to try to play fast."

Yep, I can believe that.

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