The inexperience of Kentucky’s high-potential freshmen has been most obvious in their inability to hold onto the basketball. As the Wildcats look ahead to facing opportunistic defenders such as Belmont’s J.J. Mann and Louisville’s Russ Smith, it’s becoming ever more imperative that they stop giving the ball away 13.5 times a game.
Although general sloppiness and lack of focus deserve the blame for some of those miscues, John Calipari has some more specific concerns he can target as he tries to clean up his team's offense. To wit:
1. Stop playing so much one-on-one
One of the lessons of Kentucky’s first 11 games is that James Young and Andrew Harrison are better athletes than they are ball-handlers. Both have the quickness to beat most defenders off the dribble, but neither has done a great job of keeping control of the ball in the process—especially once help arrives.
As much as Coach Cal loves to create opportunities for his wing players to make plays in space, this team has shown that it needs more structure. After all, when Baylor’s zone forced Harrison to focus more on moving the ball, he responded with his cleanest game: seven assists and just one turnover.
2. Move without the ball
A natural corollary to the previous point is that the ‘Cats need to give their playmakers some help by creating shots away from the ball. More often than not this season, Kentucky has been so focused on spacing the floor that the offense has become static, making it easy for defenses to time their double-team assaults on Julius Randle.
With Randle coming off his worst game as a scorer, it’s high time that Kentucky remembered what a skilled passer he can be. Giving him more cutters to work with will make it easier to punish opposing defenses for collapsing on him, especially because the ‘Cats are a lot more dangerous slashing to the rim than lobbing three-pointers.
A nice side benefit of this approach would be that it might reduce Kentucky’s reliance on ball screens, which it hasn’t used especially well this year. Fewer offensive fouls on illegal picks would be a great way to start cutting down the turnover total.
3. Get the other point guards involved
As brilliant as Andrew Harrison was in the loss to North Carolina, he’s struggled with the pressure of the floor general’s job ever since Michigan State blew up the Wildcats offense off the opening tip. Getting him back on track could be as simple as letting him see that he has some help, and the roster is equipped to do just that.
Harrison’s twin brother Aaron has been Kentucky’s most dangerous penetrator from his SG spot. Letting him play on the ball more often would prevent defenses from building their strategies around Andrew, while Andrew could still do plenty of the scoring that’s been his biggest contribution.
In addition, Dominique Hawkins has been earning his increased minutes off the bench largely by way of his offensive efficiency—his assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.75, though still not great, is the best among Kentucky’s guards. Against pressure defenses such as Louisville or Arkansas, a small lineup with Hawkins and both Harrisons would maximize Kentucky’s ball-handling and make it tougher for the opposition to zone in on any one player.
Hawkins’ lack of scoring punch could even become an asset here, giving the ‘Cats one player who can focus on running the offense without worrying about forcing his own opportunities.