As Kentucky basketball looks to bounce back from another overtime loss to Arkansas, it faces a bit of a paradox. After committing 18 turnovers against the frenetic Razorbacks, the Wildcats might reasonably be advised to slow things down, but that’s actually just the opposite of what they need right now.
This season’s ‘Cats have many virtues, but precision is not one of them. The nation’s 77th-best field-goal shooting team (and 263rd-best passing squad) doesn’t want to count on execution on any one possession to win a game.
Instead, Kentucky’s best move is to pick up the pace (on both ends of the floor, when possible), increasing the number of chances for its devastating athleticism to overcome its lack of polish.
The most obvious reason for Kentucky to push the tempo is to stay out of the half-court offense, where it’s vulnerable to shooting slumps like the combined 6-of-24 posted by James Young and Aaron Harrison on Thursday. In the open floor, both of those 6’6” scorers have a better chance to get to the rim, where they’re vastly tougher to guard.
The recent drop in Julius Randle’s scoring only exacerbates the Wildcats’ half-court issues, as he’s the team’s best option against a set defense.
More fast-break opportunities on offense will take the pressure off him to dominate every night, and he has the mobility to get his share of points in transition anyway. Randle is also in a great position to spearhead a speedier offense, because his defensive-rebounding superiority gives him plenty of chances to fire a quick outlet and trigger the fast break.
Rebounding is, of course, the No. 1 asset for the towering ‘Cats, who rank sixth in the nation in that department. As such, a more ragged, up-and-down game (one likely to feature more missed shots) is going to amplify their advantage on the boards.
The same principle holds for the half court, where Kentucky has provided ample evidence that waiting patiently for the best shot is not a strategy it’s equipped to implement. By pulling the trigger earlier in the shot clock, Kentucky will create more opportunities for its offensive rebounders to make plays (and more opportunities to score second-chance baskets against a scrambling defense).
However, the biggest reason of all for the Wildcats to play faster is that it will take some pressure off their suspect defense. Willie Cauley-Stein’s individual brilliance notwithstanding, Kentucky cannot afford to have a game come down to making one defensive stop.
In their seven losses, the ‘Cats are allowing opponents to shoot .452 from the floor and attempt nearly 28 free throws per game. That is not a defense that can win tightly contested NCAA tournament games, especially against opponents who will get the kind of lofty seeds Kentucky had once expected for itself.
The more possessions Kentucky can force opponents to play, the better its chances to allow a productive offense to outweigh a questionable D. If the ‘Cats can do that, they have a chance to transform themselves from regular-season upset victims into postseason upset winners.
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