30% of the way through the season, where do the Kentucky Wildcats stand?

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Kentucky came in to the 2008-2009 season with high hopes, but also some glaring deficiencies.  On the hopeful side was the return of Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks, the addition of a nationally ranked point guard prospect in DeAndre Liggins, former touted recruit and JuCo transfer Kevin Galloway and big-man transfer Josh Harrellson.  Also back were Michael Porter, Jared Carter and Perry Stevenson from last year's team, all a year older and hopefully better.

On the down side, UK had no returning seniors seeing significant minutes.  A lack of seniors is always a big deal, and any team that has none who see significant playing time and depend on sophomores and freshmen for most of their impact players has to be considered young.  But the hope was that this team would be better defensively and ball handling-wise than last year's due to the addition and return of numerous bigger, more athletic players who had shown the ability to handle the ball at some level.

How have things works out with 1/3 of the season now gone?  A few key statistics via Ken Pomeroy's site:

Statistic National Rank
2007-08 2008-09
Offensive Defensive Offensive Defensive
Efficiency 81 44 87 16
Effective FG% 54 18 35 31
Turnover % 285 263 327 208
Offensive rebound % 207 153 113 136
Free throw rate 24 281 13 136
3-point FG% 89 54 242 156
2-point FG% 57 16 11 18
Free throw % 55 261 24 216
Block % 289 31 63 7
Steal % 98 162 268 192
3-point attempt/FGA 239 143 276 185
Assist/FG made 192 73 48 14

 

Analysis:

First, a disclaimer:  We are comparing partial season stats to complete season stats, so keep that in mind.  Also, efficiency stats (both offensive and defensive) from Pomeroy are adjusted for competition, so the inclination to say "But we haven't played good teams!" should be avoided, at least for those particular numbers.

The colors in this chart kind of give you an indicator of how Kentucky is doing in each particular stat.  The darker the green, the better.  The darker the red, the worse.  White indicates a middle-of-the-road value.

There are four stats, known as the "four factors," which provide the basic components of offensive and defensive efficiency.  They are shooting, rebounding, turnovers and free throws.  We'll be paying particular attention to those stats as we analyze what is before us.

Shooting

As you can see, 2-point shooting is a strength of this team both offensively and defensively, just as it was last year.  3-point shooting, however, is a different story.  UK shoots the 3 poorly and does not defend the three particularly well.  Fortunately, our 2-point shooting has been more than good enough to prevent this from hurting our effective FG%, which is even better than last year.  Our shooting defense, however, is somewhat worse overall primarily due to our failure to defend the three as well.

Rebounding

Kentucky is a kind of middling team when it comes to offensive rebounds.  We look slightly better than last year, but this stat is not really adjusted for competition and is cause for concern.  We also do not do a very good job of keeping opposing teams off the offensive glass.

There is really no good excuse for this.  Kentucky is a very tall team top to bottom most of the time.  Patrick Patterson leads the OR chase with 11.6/40 minutes, and believe it or not, Josh Harrellson is second at 11.16/40 minutes.  Perry Stevenson is third with around 10.  But the problem is not with our front court, but our back court, in particular Jodie Meeks, who has done almost no rebounding this year at all on either end.  In fact, both Porter and Liggins grab more rebounds per 40 minutes than Meeks does.

Turnovers

One glaring weakness which I actually thought would improve was in the area of turnovers.  Last year, turnovers were a huge problem, and this year, they have gone from a major concern to a giant black hole that threatens to consume the Kentucky season.  To give you an idea of the kind of company we are in turnover wise, UK is only slightly more careful with the ball than the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Delaware State, or Northwestern State.  That's the bad news.

The good news is that our turnover percentage has been improving steadily from its high against Kansas State.  The last three games, in fact, turnovers have been a very respectable 20, 18 and 18.5%, which would put us around 63rd if that were the season stat.  That improved ballhandling, unsurprisingly, has coincided with the recent advent of DeAndre Liggins seeing major minutes at the point guard position.

Free throws

This year, as last, Kentucky is a very good free throw shooting team and gets to the line a lot.  Free throw rate (which is a measure of how often a team gets to the line) is in the top fifteen this year and was top 25 last year.  That has really aided our offensive efficiency. 

We have also tended to foul significantly less than last year, which has the defensive side of this stat (this isn't "free throw defense," an oxymoron, but rather a measure of how often the opponent gets to the line) looking much, much better than last year, which has aided our defensive efficiency by hampering our opponent's offensive efficiency.

Some other stats of interest

Kentucky is doing a much better job blocking shots, and avoiding blocks, than last year.  Last year UK was very poor at avoiding blocked shots.  This stat will worsen as our competition gets tougher, but right now, it is a very impressive statistic.

Steals is another big blot, and steal percentage, to my mind, is a much more damning statistic than turnover percentage, because a higher percentage of steals lead directly to baskets than do generic turnovers, which include violations such as charges, and ball handling errors requiring the opponent to bring the ball all the way up the court.

In recent games, the steal percentage has likely decreased due to better overall ball handling, so we should see this statistic improve over time.

Amazingly, our free throw percentage is even better this year than last compared to everyone else, and last year it was a major reason for our success, particularly in the SEC portion of the schedule.  This is nice to see after a few years of struggling at the line while Tubby Smith was coach.  I don't think this has anything to do with coaching, though -- it is more about personnel.

Conclusion

Despite the concerns of me and many 'Cat fans about some micro issues in this team, the macro side of it looks significantly better than last year.  There is no denying that this is a very efficient team defensively, and even though the offensive efficiency stat doesn't look particularly strong, it has been dragged down by just a couple of games (UNC and West Virginia) where Kentucky struggled to score due to excess turnovers.  Last year, Kentucky's OE 9 games into the season was about 103, and this year it is about 105 and we have had two games with an OE under 85 vs. only one such last year.  In the last 3 games, UK's OE has been around 116, and I expect that to rise as Liggins becomes entrenched as the major contributor at point guard.

So despite much fan frustration (including yours truly) the statistical picture of the season so far looks rather better than last year at this time, and of course, so does the record.  Kentucky has missed some major opportunities to make a statement to the NCAA selection committee, but we will have others although this year, they may be relatively few.  Even though UK threw in a clunker against Miami, the overall trend for this team is positive, and this week of practice will hopefully do much to solidify some of the recent hopeful trends we have seen.

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