UK Basketball: Areas of Opportunity

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By now, everyone in the Northern Hemisphere knows that UK is 0-2 for the first time since 2001, and only the second time since 1976.  There have been many opinions stated as to why Kentucky is off to such a uninspiring start, with more than a few being found here at ASoB.  While I have agreed with some of the countless theories as to why UK has struggled, I thought I would offer up my thoughts on the rather unpleasant subject.

Area of Opportunity: Numero Uno - Lead guard play

Of course, coming into the season we all knew that the lead guard play was going to be a point of concern for Billy Gillispie; put a check mark next to that prophecy. 

The two primary lead guards (DeAndre Liggins and Michael Porter) have combined for 17 assists and 20 turnovers (Liggins dished out five of those dimes in the second half versus Carolina).  Not great numbers, but considering UK as a team has committed 53 turnovers in two games, the lead guards ball-handling can hardly be considered a primary reason for UK's terrible offensive output.  Two upperclassmen, Jodie Meeks and Ramon Harris have combined for 20 turnovers themselves (to go with only five assists).

So for those bemoaning the lead guard play as sub-standard, you are right, but on the 'Big Blue Get Better to-do list,' lead guard ball-handling and decision making is near the middle of the list, not the top. 

 

No, at the top of the list belongs UK's inability to run it's offensive sets.  Directly responsible for that particular malady ARE Kentucky's two lead guards.

Michael Porter simply cannot, while being pressured, initiate the offense.  It's that simple.  

I suppose it's good we found out early, instead of just prior to conference play.  Finding out now will enable Gillispie to make the switch in plenty of time for Liggins  to receive the requisite floor time in order to become comfortable starting (more importantly getting the bulk of the minutes -- he currently average 22.5 minutes) at the position.  Delaware State, Longwood, and Kansas State are all good teams for Liggins to learn on the job against.  And from what I've seen from the freshman, in time, he will be an excellent lead guard.

He's so much more gifted as a basketball player than his counter-part: his court vision, his length, his lateral movement (he did a great job defending UNC's Ty Lawson), his quickness ... the list goes on.  Liggins' only real problem at this point is his inexperience.  Which happens to be the only advantage Porter has on him.  But one thing about inexperience, it goes away after a length of time. 

As a fan, I'm certainly willing to endure Liggins' mistakes, such as literally handing the ball off to Patrick Patterson at the free throw line on a fast break (resulting in a turnover), because I know after watching this kid that he's going to be very good.  And most importantly, he is capable of initiating the offense

Tuesday night versus North Carolina, Liggins maneuvered UK into their offensive sets.  He was able to find Patrick Patterson when Patterson flashed, although, as freshman will do, he missed him on occasion.  But, he is not overwhelmed by his defender to the point where Kentucky's offense disintegrates into a jump shooting exercise for Jodie Meeks. 

So given the fact that Liggins should begin to see more time at lead, I feel that Kentucky will become more efficient within the confines of their offense.  Here are some other areas UK's offense will be positively effected by improved lead guard play:

  • Offensive rebounding: While UK out-rebounded North Carolina by two, the 'Cats were beaten on the offensive boards (which equals extra possessions) by nine.  I think the primary reason for that underwhelming statistic is because when a team isn't proficient in running their offense, players (UK's anyway) tend to roam out of their zone and away from the basket, leaving the middle open for the opponents to grab the rebound.  Ramon Harris in particular showed a proclivity to wander, grabbing exactly zero rebounds versus UNC.  
  • Shot distribution: Meeks - 47, Harris - 18, Patterson - 15, Stevenson - 13 ... what's wrong with this picture?  Meeks taking more shots than Harris, Patterson and Stevenson combined is a function of UK's inability to initiate the offense.  In Gillispie's half-court offense everything is supposed to run through Patterson; the high/low, and the inside-out.  Out of the 80 minutes of basketball we've witnessed thus far, precious few plays have been run as planned, which has resulted in offensive chaos, and skewed shot distribution numbers.  Which leads to ...
  • Shot selection and shooting percentage: UK's big men, Patterson, Stevenson, and Harris are a combined 31 of 46 from the field, which is good for 67.4%.  I don't care who you're playing, that's a darn fine percentage.  Conversely, Meeks, Liggins and Porter are a combined 23 of 59 for 39.9% (additionally, Meeks is only 6 of 20 on this three-point attempts).  No way Gillispie wants the shot distribution to break down as it has so far this year.  The wrong guys are taking the bulk of the shots, once again, as a direct result of the lead guard's inability to initiate the offense.  But with improved lead guard play, those numbers will begin to reflect Gillispie's instructions more accurately.

Area of Opportunity: Numero Dos - Defensive intensity and execution

The responsibility for this area of weakness is UK's youth, and a lack of athleticism in certain players. 

Allowing one's opponents to make 47.7% of their three-point shots is simply not acceptable.  I realize VMI was making shots with hands in their faces, but they had many open looks, and a few times, instead of running at the shooter, the UK defender stopped as the shooter left the floor; that's giving up, and that's unacceptable.  That particular scenario certainly wasn't the rule, but that type of defensive laziness is a sign of athletic immaturity. 

Another, more telling sign of defensive laziness is that fact that UK has exactly 12 steals in two games. 

Both of UK's games have been played at an accelerated pace, but they have managed only the aforementioned 12 steals, while VMI and UNC pilfered UK 29 times.  If there ever was a stat that pointed to a team being a losing team, that's it, my friends.  Some of the blame goes to being lazy (the reason for Gillispie's paint peeling halftime party?), but a majority of the blame, once again, should be directed at the youth of many of the players.  

Patterson, Darius Miller, Liggins, Porter and Josh Harrellson have accounted for two steals between the five of them.  One might possibly think that Patterson and Harrellson can be forgiven, after-all big men don't commit that many thefts, until one sees that Perry Stevenson has three steals (to go along with an impressive 10 blocks) and Ramon Harris has four. 

Partly to blame for UK's defensive lapses is the FACT that Patrick Patterson is not in basketball shape, just yet.  He's getting close, but his six month layoff is showing up on the court in the form of not fighting for position, both defensively and offensively.  He's shown flashes of his quickness and strength, but the consistent explosiveness, and defensive anticipation has not yet found its way back into his game.  It will though.

Kentucky's team transition defense also has to be disappointing to Gillispie.  In both games to date the UK defenders haven't closed angles, they haven't gotten in passing lanes, and they haven't denied the shooter the rock.  As much emphasis as Gillispie puts on defense, one would think that these players would understand the importance of disrupting the opponents offense, it is, after-all, the whole point of playing defense. 

As UK fans we want to know who to blame, but from where I sit, what I've seen are a few players looking lost, a few players adjusting to the speed of the game, and Patterson not being the beast he was last year (once again, I blame his conditioning, or lack thereof).  All ailments that have an antidote.  Time.

"But what about the coach ..."

"What's inexcusable (to me anyway) is that Gillispie was either unable or unwilling to make adjustments to counter that game plan.  BCG is still a rather young coach, but he has enough experience that he should have been able to come up with some adjustments at half-time"

 "Can he get the best out of what he has?  Can he teach five players to run a play?  If it is structured play (the offense), then where is the structure?"        

 "I too question his coaching.  Based on what I've seen ... Billy isn't impressing me or any of the UK faithful here ..."

 "Gillispie looks like he absolutely hates this team."

 "The most difficult thing to accept is Gillispie's lack of adapting to what the other team is doing on either offense or defense.  It seems that he has an agenda, and if it doesn't work, there's no other alternative."

"And again I will question whether or not he can coach ... there has been NO EVIDENCE so far that he can coach X's and O's ... I am beginning to wonder if Billy can truly coach a team." 

"How can UK go through the SEC and win eight games?  I don't, so ..."    

 All quotes from UK fans, from November and December of 2007.

I don't think Gillispie is above criticism or should not be questioned, but I learned my lesson last year.  He knows what he's doing, we ALL should have learned that last year.  But in our haste to place blame, often times the coach is the easiest target, although not necessarily the most deserving.

This team is young.  It is inexperienced (or talent poor, depending upon the player) at THE most important position on the court; lead guard.  That fact alone dictates to UK fans that patience needs to be practiced, and Gillispie should be left to do his job.  It's much too early to place blame, instead look for signs of growth, I'm betting they'll be showing up very soon. 

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!

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