Don't Count out Kentucky as an NCAA Title Threat

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 15, 2014

As it turns out, dedicating an entire website to Kentucky's potential 40-0 season might not have been the best idea.

It feels like forever ago, but there was a time before the season began when a significant percentage of the population felt that a 2014 national championship was a foregone conclusion for the Wildcats.

They could absolutely still win it all, but not the way they're playing right now.

It hasn't been long (Jan. 10) since my bold prediction that Kentucky would get back to No. 1 before the end of the season, so I'm certainly not going to act like that never happened and start asking if Kentucky is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament.

Big Blue nation, however, has some issues.

Can they be solved before it's too late?


Willie Show Up?

One of the biggest problemsand certainly the most rectifiable oneis Willie Cauley-Stein's recurring disappearing act.

Cauley-Stein is shooting 65.6 percent from the field this season. Not only is he making two-pointers at almost the exact same success rate as the entire team is making free throws, but it's good enough to rank him 11th in the nation in field-goal percentage.

So, why isn't he taking more shots in Kentucky's biggest games?

Kentucky has four losses and one win against an opponent (Louisville) in the RPI top 50. In those games, Cauley-Stein is averaging just 4.4 points on 3.8 field-goal attempts. In the other 12 games, he's averaging 10.1 points on 6.2 field-goal attempts.

The strange thing about those numbers is that Cauley-Stein is actually getting more playing time in the bigger games.

Despite an 18-minute effort riddled with foul trouble against Arkansas, he is averaging 28.4 minutes per game in the big ones and just 24.2 minutes in the other games. Add it all up, and he's averaging one shot for every 7.5 minutes on the court in big games, as opposed to one field-goal attempt for every 3.9 minutes otherwise.

To be fair, his field-goal attempts are heavily dependent upon offensive rebounds and fast-break opportunities.

He has scored 14 or more points five times this season. Aside from the recent game against Vanderbilt in which he made a lot of jumpers relatively late in the shot clock, the vast majority of his points have come from tip-ins, putback dunks and fast-break run-outsnone of which are readily available against the best teams in the country.

Doesn't that revelation just further exasperate the problem, though? In half-court offense, how is it even possible that Kentucky is unable to utilize a player who is taller than everyone else on the court and makes nearly two out of every three field-goal attempts?

We had a similar frustration last year (and this year, too, quite frankly) with New Mexico State's 7'5" Sim Bhullar. But at least with Bhullar, our expectations were tempered by the fact that he's clearly not the fleetest of foot and his teammates aren't exactly the best of the best.

What's the excuse for Cauley-Stein? How is this man not averaging 25 points per game? He's athletically gifted and is surrounded by about as much talent as one could possibly ask for. His teammates should be lobbing him the ball incessantly until the opposing team double-teams him and leaves someone else wide-open.

The ridiculous thing is that teams are already routinely double-teaming Julius Randle in the post. Cauley-Stein should be wide-open on a fairly regular basis.

James Young has been the primary person stepping up to fill the scoring void from the double-teams on Randle, as Young has averaged 15.5 field-goal attempts in Kentucky's last four games. Kentucky needs Cauley-Stein5.0 field-goal attempts in last four gamesto pick up more of that slack.


Twin Killing

Instead of Cauley-Stein, it has been Andrew Harrison taking more shots, which has to be the dream scenario for Kentucky's opponents.

If you look at nothing but three-point percentage—Harrison is the team leader at 36.1 percentthat might seem like a pretty stupid statement; however, he has only attempted 36 three-pointers so far this season. He's forcing shots from inside the arc and missing too often. 

Scoring Efficiency by Kentucky's Primary Players
Player3P%2P%Points from FGPoints per FGA
Willie Cauley-Stein0% (0-0)65.6% (61-93)1221.31
Alex Poythress33.3% (4-12)55.6% (35-63)821.09
Julius Randle0% (0-7)55.8% (86-154)1721.07
Aaron Harrison28.8% (19-66)58.5% (55-94)1671.04
James Young32.1% (35-109)48.1% (38-79)1810.96
Andrew Harrison36.1% (13-36)38.0% (30-79)990.86

The table excludes points from free throws—a category in which Harrison is significantly more valuable than Cauley-Stein. Still, the fact remains that an average field-goal attempt from Kentucky's starting point guard only returns 0.86 points.

Perhaps it would be in everyone's best interest if Harrison started focusing less on scoring and more on creating opportunities for everyone else on his team. On the year, he's averaging 3.5 assists per game and has yet to have more than seven dimes in any game.

One of Kentucky's biggest issues during the 2012-13 season was the lack of a true point guard.

Archie Goodwin was always much more of a shooting guard, and North Carolina State transfer Ryan Harrow didn't click for Kentucky's offense anywhere near as well as he has for Georgia State this year.

And yet, Harrow's assist rate (number of assists divided by field goals made by the player’s teammates while he is on the court, according to KenPom) was 20.5, while Harrison's is only 20.3. Better yet, Harrow had a turnover rate of 16.6 percent, while Harrison's is currently 23.6.

Putting those numbers in a more familiar context, Harrow had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.71, while Harrison's is just 1.37. For an external comparison, Syracuse's freshman point guard Tyler Ennis is averaging 4.14 assists per turnover this season.

Long story short, Harrison hasn't been a great scorer, distributor or ball-handler. I'm not saying he's no good, but considering he was right behind Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon in most college basketball scouting rankings, it's not too difficult to figure out which top-five recruit has been the most disappointing.


No Harm, Still a Foul

The biggest concern for the Wildcats, however, might be the nonstop barrage of whistles, and I'm not sure there's much they can do about this one.

Where I grew up, if you call a foul in pickup basketball, you better be bleeding. Considering "Don't call fouls" is the ninth thing on Jim Cavan's list of 10 things not to do when playing pickup ball, I assume that's a pretty common unspoken rule across the country.

My point, of course, is that Kentucky has some of the best 18- and 19-year-old players that this country has to offer. They are players who have already played more pickup basketball than you or I could possibly fathom.

Only now they're playing in the NCAA, where it's suddenly illegal to breathe on someone from the opposing team. We're more than halfway through the regular season, and we still frequently see players from Kentucky throwing their hands in the air after the whistle as if to say, "Coach, I don't know what else to do here!"

Obviously, this phenomenon isn't unique to Kentucky. The other 350 teams are dealing with the same rules as Kentucky. What is unique, though, is that this team is having to simultaneously adjust to new rules while adjusting to playing at a higher level.

Not surprisingly, Kentucky is the youngest team in the country, checking in with 0.31 years of previous college experience per player on the roster. Asking the players to adapt to new rules in the same year that they arrive at college is the equivalent of forcing top MLB prospects to make the move from Double-A to the majors while learning how to play defense without a glove.

Rather than learning how to play aggressive defense without fouling, the Wildcats have simply elected not to play aggressive defense.

In terms of fouls per game, they're in the middle of the pack, with roughly 19; however, they rank 337th in the nation in steals per personal foul as well as percentage of opponent's possessions that end in a steal.

They do rank 17th in the country in defensive effective field-goal percentage at 43.5 percent, so they aren't a group of matadors out there just waving players through to the hoop. Much of that percentage, though, is owed to their level of competition. In their five most difficult games, that effective field-goal percentage jumps to 47.3 percent, which would rank roughly 100th.

It's not unreasonable to assume this team would be much better defensively under the old rules.

And on the offensive end of things, the never-ending parade to the free-throw line is suffocating any chance for them to get into a rhythm that caters to an athletic ability which undoubtedly trumps that of every other team in the country.

On one hand, it's a good thing Kentucky is attempting more free throws per game than every other team except Manhattan. On the other hand, that's a lot of standing around and doing nothing for a team that is equipped to run the floor all night long.

Will John Calipari take some shots away from Harrison in order to give more opportunities to Cauley-Stein? Can this team learn to defend without fouling or really start making opponents pay for fouling them by shooting better than 65.9 percent from the charity stripe?

Who knows, but it's arguably Kentucky's best shot at going 24-0 the rest of the way.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of (subscription required).

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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