Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Picking Through More Kentucky-Indiana Wreckage

As I, and others, sift through some more of the debris of the Kentucky Wildcats at Indiana Hoosiers game, there are a bunch of interesting facts to be examined, many of them containing a lesson that will undoubtedly be picked up on by coaches and the media.

The first and most important is that Kentucky didn't play a "bad" game in a traditional sense, but rather in a relative sense. For what I mean, consider this chart (courtesy of KenPom.com):

Date Opponent Result
Pace Eff eFG% TO% OR% FTR Eff eFG% TO% OR% FTR
11/11/11 266 Marist W, 108-58 H 76 141.6 1 64 11.8 46 20 76 1 36.5 18.4 24.7 36.5
11/15/11 6 Kansas W, 75-65 N 74 100.9 2 57.8 25.6 23.5 56.9 87.5 1 37.3 18.8 33.3 45.8
11/19/11 158 Penn St. W, 85-47 N 66 128.3 1 62.3 15.1 34.4 54.7 71 2 32.1 18.1 34.6 17.9
11/20/11 111 Old Dominion W, 62-52 N 67 92.4 4 49.1 31.3 37.8 32.1 77.5 2 36.6 17.9 25.6 30.4
11/23/11 322 Radford W, 88-40 H 76 116.3 1 54 21.1 42 38.7 52.9 1 27.7 25.1 21.5 7.7
11/26/11 191 Portland W, 87-63 H 70 124.8 2 50.8 5.7 32.5 56.5 90.4 4 46.7 24.4 32.4 13.1
12/01/11 135 St. John's W, 81-59 H 79 102.8 5 44.2 15.2 39.8 43.5 74.9 1 33.3 29.2 33.7 45
12/03/11 4 North Carolina W, 73-72 H 65 111.7 2 47.6 13.8 41.1 28.6 110.2 5 50.8 19.9 38.7 23.3
12/10/11 13 Indiana L, 73-72 A 70 102.8 1 57.4 25.7 39.3 31.5 104.2 2 50.9 25.7 40.6 29.3

You can see that I highlighted the last two games, the one against the North Carolina Tar Heels at home and the one Kentucky just played against IU on the road. Take a look at the effective field goal percentage. Against the Hoosiers in a hostile environment, Kentucky shot the ball 10% better than they did against the Tar Heels at home. I consider that disparity at least partly due to the defensive quality of IU and UNC. Despite charges that the Tar Heels don't really play defense by some sportswriters, the numbers disagree, and these two games also suggest what most of us would probably suspect about who has a better defense between the Hoosiers and the Tar Heels.

Note also that from a defensive efficiency standpoint, there is no meaningful difference between how UK played Indiana and North Carolina. So any ideas that fans may have about UK playing a bad game defensively are just not borne out by the statistics -- both UNC and IU are among the best offensive teams in the land. But there are other places where UK did play a bad game, notably ball security and free throw shooting, which we'll get to in a bit.

So how did UK lose? In close games, as you might suspect, statistics don't mean all that much. They are really useful for looking at a bunch of games in aggregate, but when we drill down to discrete games, especially very close games that are well played by both sides, one team can win the statistical battle and lose the game. We see that all the time in football, but it's less common in basketball.

Statistically, UK shot the ball better, but was less efficient offensively versus IU than UNC. The reason for that is the higher number of possessions versus Indiana -- this game was played at a significantly higher pace than the North Carolina game. Why was the pace higher? Turnovers, primarily. Turnovers end possessions, and the turnover percentage in this game was much higher than in the UNC game, particularly for UK.

The main culprit in that stat was 6 turnovers by Terrence Jones, who just struggled to hang onto the ball all day. But if you take that down to his average of 2.1 turnovers per game, UK probably wins this basketball game by 4 or 5 points. So TJ's ball security turned out to have a disproportionate impact on the game because of its relative magnitude and the narrow margin of the outcome. Even more annoying is that probably four out of those six turnovers were completely unforced by the defense -- they were just giveaways by Jones under light or no defensive pressure.

As some pointed out in earlier threads, free throw shooting was another major culprit in this loss, and this is once again where the current state of advanced statistics suffers a bit in close games. The four factors measure free throw rate, or the rate at which each team gets to the line. It doesn't really consider the percentage that each team makes. UK actually won the FTR stat, but that measure ignores the fact that Kentucky made only 10 of 17 attempts, and missed two front-ends of the 1 and 1 late in the basketball game that easily could have sealed a close win for the Wildcats. IU made 14 of their 17 tries.

The bottom line here is that when you look at the game vs. UNC, which UK won, and the game versus IU, which they lost, there is little to separate them statistically. Both games were decided by the last play, and Kentucky played comparably well in both games. The moral to this story is something we all know as basketball fans -- it's the little things, the fundamentals like making free throws, layups, and ball security, that will often determine the outcome of a game no matter how well it is played otherwise. UK got the fundamentals right more often versus UNC than against IU.

But there are still more lessons to be learned. Those, however, are a subject for later articles.

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