UK Basketball: Grading the 'Cats

With the "soft" portion of the Kentucky schedule now in the rear-view mirror, and dates with No. 10 North Carolina, No. 14 Connecticut, No. 20 Louisville, and Indiana looming large in Big Blue's headlights, it's time to cast a critical eye toward the progress of this youthful edition of the 'Cats.  We've all heard and read John Calipari plead for patience with this group ... don't expect too much, too soon, has been his oft-heard mantra.  And while I certainly agree this team is an unfinished work of art, following closely the evolution of Cal's (would be) masterpiece is too tempting to toss aside.

For the particulars, follow me after the jump:

The Good-to-Excellent

Overall team shooting -- The 'Cats are currently shooting the ball at an exceptional 51.5% rate of accuracy, good for 10th in the nation.  Leading the way by shooting 69.1%, is junior forward Patrick Patterson.  Patterson has made 47 of 68 shots, as well as making 38.5%% of this trey attempts (5-13).  Patterson's post teammate, freshman DeMarcus Cousins, is shooting 55.8% from the floor (43-77).  Freshman guard John Wall has made 55.6% of his shots from the floor (35-63), and big man Daniel Orton at 50.0% (11-22) rounds out the four 50.0%+ shooters (with at least 20 shots taken) UK currently boasts.  Close behind that quartet is Darnell Dodson, who's made 15-31 from the field, good for 48.4%.  For those concerned with points-per-possession; UK is averaging 1.16, good for 17th in the nation.

Considering two of the 'Cats' primary scoring threats can be found down on the blocks (Patterson, Cousins), one can reasonably expect the teams shooting percentage to remain hovering around the 50.0% mark for most of the year.  And so far, the shot selection of the UK guards has been solid, if not spectacular, and shot selection, i.e. taking good shots, is the key to shooting a high percentage.  Even though UK's competition ramps up considerably in the coming weeks, if Wall, Dodson, Eric Bledsoe (44.4%), and Darius Miller (40.0%) continue to be selective, and take shots via the offensive game-plan, as well as continue to score easy fast-break baskets, the 'Cats' shooting should continue to be checked off as a positive in the season's ledger.

Coming into the season, the guards' overall shooting was a major concern for most UK fans, ergo, I have to award a well-earned A in this category.

Three-point shooting -- If there was a bigger concern than the overall shooting of UK's freshmen and sophomore guards, it was their potential three-point shooting numbers that most kept UK fans up at night wondering where their Jodie Meeks had gone.  Well, as of yet, the troubled minds of the BBN seems to have been fraught with angst for no good reason: With no less than three shooters (taking a minimum of 20 threes) making at least 40.0% of their trey tries (Bledsoe - 52.2%, Dodson - 40.0%, Miller - 40.0%), UK is sporting a very respectable 37.9% three-point shooting percentage.  Also getting into the act, as promised, is Patrick Patterson.  The big fella is showin' the NBA he has mad range, making five of 13 threes (38.5%) so far this season.

Although it's not yet time to exhale, the perimeter shooting of this group has been a major surprise, especially considering the person thought to be UK's best outside shooter (Dodson) has missed three games.  A 37.9% make rate on threes earns this category a solid A.

Offensive rebounding -- Kentucky's big man combination of Patterson (31), Cousins (28), and Orton (10) have combined to grab 69 offensive rebounds in only seven games (a cumulative 9.9 per game).  As a team, UK has snagged 21 more offensive boards than their opponents, a welcome change from the numbers we've witnessed over the last few years.

UK's offensive rebound percentage is ranked fourth nationally at 45.9%, but before we throw the boys on the blocks a way-to-go party, keep in mind these numbers were accumulated against inferior, and many times, much smaller front lines than UK will encounter in the coming months.  But, as long as they continue to crash the offensive boards aggressively, I feel confident this group will continue to snag more than their share of offensive rebounds.

Fourth nationally ... it doesn't get much better than that.  Once again, an A is in order. 

Overall rebounding -- As expected, UK is averaging a +12.4 in overall rebounding.  With Patterson (10.6), Cousins (8.6 in an average of 20.0 minutes per game), Ramon Harris (4.1 in an average of 16.7 mpg), and Orton (3.3 in an average of 14.7 mpg) crashing the boards with abandon, Kentucky's domination of the glass has been thorough.

As is true with most of the early-season statistics, UK's overall rebounding will be put to a sterner test beginning with Saturday's game against North Carolina.  But, posting a +12.4 at any point in the season is certainly commendable, and deserving of another A.

Shot block differential -- Kentucky's big men have blocked a total of 58 shots (8.3 per game), good for first nationally.  DeMarcus Cousins (18) and Daniel Orton (12) have led the Big Blue block party to this point in the year.  Kentucky's opponents, on the other hand, have blocked only 18 shots (2.6 per game), for an excellent +5.7 differential.

Shot blocking was thought to be a positive for this year's team, and they have not disappointed.  Why break the streak ... another A for UK's block monsters.

Overall opponents' field goal shooting -- UK is adeptly holding their opponents to only 36.6% floor shooting, which is good for 20th in the nation.  As is true with many of the above categories, this number can be traced back to the level of competition UK has faced thus far, coupled with the effectiveness at guarding the basket UK's big men have displayed to this point in the season.

While I expect the current 36.6% number to rise slightly, a realistic goal of this group should be to hold opponents to sub-40.0% shooting on the season.  A solid B+ is much deserved.

Team chemistry -- There are no stats to dissect, no numbers to crunch (except 7-0), but this team seems to like one another.  I'm not at practice, but from all reports, the team members' desire to win trumps their desire to put up individual numbers.

This area was a slight concern coming into the season, so a feeling of relief results in a very well-deserved A+. 

The Average-to-Below-Average

Turnover differential -- Kentucky is averaging 17.1 turnovers per game, while their opponents are averaging only 14.9 turnovers per game.  These numbers are a function of UK's youth, and the fact that the team hasn't displayed the defensive tenacity often related to a John Calipari-coached team.  The two primary ball-handlers for the 'Cats, John Wall (4.0 per game) and Eric Bledsoe (4.3 pg), have combined to commit 54 turnovers, which, considering their freshman status and pace of play, aren't terrible numbers, but there is certainly room for improvement, which should come as the players become more experienced and accustomed to the offensive sets. 

Considering the 'Cats are going to run with the ball if given the opportunity, somewhere near 14-15 turnovers per game is an acceptable average.  And as the team learns and executes Calipari's defensive desires, UK's forced turnovers, otherwise known as steals (currently averaging 7.0 per game), should also increase.  But at the moment, the best I can award is a tepid C-.

Free throw shooting -- As a team UK is shooting a mediocre 66.8% from the charity stripe.  Only John Wall (80.4%), Eric Bledsoe (88.2%), and Darius Miller (88.9%) are shooting the rock with aplomb from the free throw line. 

The Scooby Doo crew is needed to unravel the mystery of Patrick Patterson's sudden shakiness from the line -- Coming into this season, Patterson was 216-287 for his career (75.3%), but this year he's making his free tries at only a 51.7% rate (15-29).  Considering Patterson will take upward of 150 free throws on the year, with many of those coming at critical junctures, solving the Patterson free throw puzzle must be done, and soon.

It was heartening to see DeMarcus Cousins make eight of 11 free throws against UNC-Asheville Monday night in Freedom Hall, after he made only 18-36 (50.0%) up to that point in the season.  Practice produces confidence, DeMarcus.  Thanks for demonstrating that fact live, and in color. 

On the plus side of the season ledger is the fact that UK's primary ball-handlers are all shooting their free throws at an excellent rate -- Wall, Bledsoe, and Miller are a combined 60-74 (81.1%).

Calipari's teams have often been plagued by poor free throw shooting, and it cost him a national title two years ago.  This season Cal, has at times, made light of the poor free throw shooting this team has demonstrated, but no one will be laughing if their under-performance begins to cost the 'Cats victories.  A shaky C- is all that is deserved at this point in the season for UK's (mostly) shaky free throw shooting.

Opponents three-point shooting -- UK ranks 218th in the nation in defending their opponents' three-point shooting, which stands at 35.7%.  The horror show looks like this -- Miami - 57.7%, Sam Houston State - 47.4%, Stanford - 35.0%, UNC-Asheville - 40.0%.

Unacceptable ... there really isn't anything else one can say.  Sure, UK is young, but youth is not an excuse for failing to get a hand in the shooter's face, or denying the shooter the ball.  But, the team will learn defensive rotation in time, as well as the effort it takes to defend competently.  Or at least they better, because we all know the three-point shot is the great equalizer.  Grade?  A well deserved F.

Early December Exam Results

Through seven games this team is showing why so many thought so highly of UK's chances of having a great season.  Sure, they've had a couple of close shaves (Miami, Stanford), but with youth comes inexperience, i.e. taking opponents lightly, but as the season progresses, if they mature at an acceptable rate, this team should be very tough to beat regardless of the level of competition.

Freshman summation -- John Wall has been spectacular, if at times a bit too comfortable dribbling the ball; Eric Bledsoe has shown he CAN shoot the ball beyond 15 feet; DeMarcus Cousins is simply ferocious, if a bit too emotional; Darnell Dodson, if he can demonstrate a willingness to play defense, has the chance to be special at the two/three-spot; Daniel Orton has been a solid edtion to the low post with his solid shooting, and timely rebounding (10 offensive boards in only 14.7 mpg); Jon Hood hasn't played enough to render any meaningful words ( four games, 8.5 mpg), except ... I hope the Madisonville native gets a chance to shine.

As the team embarks on the rest of the season, the competition increases exponentially.  Losses may be in the offing, but as they continue to learn the system, and learn each other, I expect mostly victories, with a chance for greatness.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!

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