Kentucky Basketball: True Grit

There has been a ton of talk following the Kentucky Wildcats' loss on Saturday to the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville about how Kentucky's Achilles heel of perimeter shooting has been exposed, and that it is likely to get them beaten in the tournament somewhere along the line.  The meme goes that when the going gets tough, the 20'9" shot seems to lengthen out to near half-court.

There is irrefutable statistical evidence that Kentucky has not shot the ball well from 3-point range during the SEC portion of the season.  Let's review, first looking at the out-of-conference portion of the schedule:


That looks pretty good to me, except for the ominous dip in the Louisville game, which starts looking more like a trend than a blip in the SEC portion of the season.  Let's visualize that, too:


Ugh.  Starting with the Mississippi Rebels game, the Wildcats' trend has been decidedly negative.  But that represents only seven games out of the season, and while it is fair to point out that the Wildcats have hit a season nadir in 3-point shooting (right now, the trend has dipped below 30%, and 33% is "break even"), can we conclude that this will continue?  I will argue, "no," for the following reasons:

  1. UK has faced zones all year, and are facing them now.  The quality of the looks the Wildcats are getting has not changed.
  2. It is typical to see even good shooting teams go into a mid-season slump.  The only question is, will Kentucky come out of it in time to avoid a devastating upset?
  3. I see no form problems for the Wildcats, only a bit of a confidence problem.  Two good shooting games and they should be able to right the ship.

But I didn't write this article to talk about 3-point shooting, I started it out that way to emphasize that Kentucky is unquestionably on a negative trend from three, and is in a slump.  That is not debatable.

The real point of all this is to emphasize that at no time has 3-point shooting, good, bad or indifferent, made a significant difference in the confidence of this basketball team to win games.  Consider this recap:

  1. Kentucky was down 18 points to the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks in the first half in Rupp Arena.  UK won that game on a last-second John Wall jump shot.
  2. Kentucky was down 11 to the Georgia Bulldogs in the first half, and won that game.
  3. Kentucky was down 7 late in the second half at Starksville versus the Mississippi St. Bulldogs and won in overtime.
  4. The Wildcats were down 19 with 14:05 left versus the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, and in under 12 minutes came all the way back to tie the game at 65, before eventually giving way in a tough loss.

I use the above as examples of the extreme mental toughness of this Kentucky team.  They remind me very much of the 1998 Wildcats who won the national championship -- not in how they play or in terms of talent, but in their mental approach to the game, treating deficits that might cause a lesser team to panic as though they are just a temporary setback that they will certainly overcome.

I cannot but think that, despite their current shooting woes, the confidence, and ability to summon points seemingly from hapless shooting, will serve Kentucky well in the tournament.  Eric Crawford has companion piece to this one that seems too heavy on concern to me.

Everybody prefers a team that will dominate a game from start to finish, but this has rarely been the style of the 2010 'Cats.  Many times this season, the Wildcats have run off to big leads and lost interest in the game, allowing opponents to come back and make it competitive.  Every single time that has happened,the Wildcats have prevailed, but fans and analysts always fear this tendency.  But Kentucky fans should not fear it, because the 1998 wildcats also had this tendency, albeit to a lesser degree.   The 1998 'Cats favored allowing opponents to run off to big leads, only to come back and beat them, rather than surrendering a lead and having to play a tight game that had been uncompetitive.

Some might argue that the 1998 team was much better 3-point shooting team, but over the season, there were only 36.7% from 19'9".  This UK team, despite its recent slump, is still shooting 34.7% on the year from a foot further back.  Yes, two percentage points makes a difference -- about 1 point per game -- but that is not terribly significant.

The point of all this is to soothe the mind of those who may be concerned.  There is nothing wrong with the Wildcats, young as they are.  In fact, there is something very good about them, and that is their toughness and supreme confidence in themselves and each other, and the fact that giving up is not to be found anywhere in their DNA, even through the most powerful scanning electron microscope. 

I believe they will apply that same attitude to their shooting woes -- remember how they were supposed to be such poor shooters coming into the season, only to average 40.6% from the arc the first half of the season?  There is no reason to believe that cannot return in time for tournament play.

Perhaps I'm optimistic, but history provides me with reason to be.

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