There seems to be a debate breaking out around the Big Blue Nation regarding the South Carolina Gamecocks game regarding how well the Kentucky Wildcats played. Many Big Blue fans correctly point out that this game had a lot of turnovers from the Blue and White, and that is true -- in fact, it was a season high in turnovers at 21%.
Nay-sayers also point out that Kentucky got outrebounded, and that is also true. In the only rebounding statistic that matters, offensive rebound %, Kentucky lost the battle badly, 28-38%, a 10-point margin. That is problematic, and was a big reason why South Carolina made a late run on Kentucky to take what had been a 16-point lead with 4:49 to go down to 5 points with just under 1 minute to go.
But there were other things Kentucky did very well, namely defend and get to the line, where they made a very high percentage, under considerable game and season pressure. Let's take a look at all this graphically:
More after the jump.
This graph clearly shows where the game was won -- defensively. Kentucky held a team averaging almost 49% eFG% to 36% That is a lock-down defensive job, and what has happened is that we fans have a tendency to see only defensive mistakes, notable defensive plays and offensive execution. That's understandable, even laudable since most college basketball fans don't see anything but offensive execution and individual highlights.
This Kentucky team played the pick and roll tonight about as flawlessly as any team I have seen in a long time, professional or college. The pick and roll requires great discipline and communication to defend well, which is why so many teams still run this tried and true form of offensive basketball.
Josh Harrellson is much better than DeMarcus Cousins was at defending the pick and roll. Cousins physical gifts allowed him to get away with mistakes that Harrellson cannot, so Harrellson just doesn't make many. He isn't perfect, of course, and wasn't tonight, but South Carolina could not get a shot up running the pick and roll several times, and that is just about as good as defense can be played at this level.
Contrast that with how South Carolina defended Kentucky's pick and roll. One monster Terrence Jones dunk and several other good plays resulted from sharp UK execution of the pick and roll. Several times, only great defensive plays by USC or plain poor shooting at the rim saved a basket.
The bottom line is that Kentucky played about as well against South Carolina's set offense as is humanly possible. Where they did not play well was taking care of the offensive rebounding that South Carolina has done so well this year. Kentucky definitely deserves criticism for this, as offensive rebounding margins larger than 5% against you can really get you beat, even if you play pretty well elsewhere. Kentucky was -10% in this one, and that's not a good thing.
Kentucky fans have also bemoaned the turnovers, and to be sure, there were way to many for my taste. But what really matters there, like in OR%, is the margin. A -1% turnover margin just really isn't much of a problem.
Kentucky didn't shoot the ball particularly well, managing only 46% eFG%. Recall that I told you in the pregame an eFG below 45% was problematic for a Wildcat victory, but I doubt that would have been true in this game as long as it was not much south of 45%. I did not imagine in my most optimistic hopes that Kentucky would come in to Colonial Life Arena and hold the good-shooting gamecocks below 40% eFG, let alone 4% below. But in spite of that remarkable defense, the Wildcats almost allowed the offensive rebounding to negate that terrific performance. Almost, but not quite.
As for problems, well Kentucky mainly has to become a much more physical team. For the third time, I thought a team was more physical than Kentucky on the road, and Calipari really has to find a way to motivate these guys to get in there and bang. This time it was the guards who got pushed around, and it seems that the SEC is just going to start refereeing games like the NBA and allow rough basketball. Kentucky has to prepare for that, and learn to be tougher and play through more contact than they have been. I wish they had called games more like this last year when UK was much more brawny and loved to bang. Alas.
If you haven't seen Calipari's comments on the game, you should watch them:
As you can see, Calipari was pleased with the team performance, and I think Kentucky fans should be pleased as well. This was literally a must-win game on the road with all sorts of implications, and under all that pressure, this team delivered against a South Carolina team that is having none of pre-season expectations and is playing outstanding basketball.
In sum, I think we owe these guys a pat on the back. Beautiful defensive games like this often look like ugly basketball. Let's save the criticism for similar performances in Rupp Arena, not on the road in a must-win game.