The Kentucky Wildcats, with its 77-71 win over Alabama on Saturday (UK's 11th straight win), accomplished something very few UK teams have ever done in the unparalleled history of Kentucky basketball, which is to win 19 of the team's first 20 games. To bring into perspective the rarefied air the current crop of 'Cats are floating in, and to give some fans a real appreciation for what they are witnessing, a history lesson:
Since the end of World War II there have been eight other Kentucky basketball teams begin the season with at least a 19-1 record -- 1947 (started the season 21-1), 1949 (29-1), 1951 (27-1), 1954 (25-0), 1966 (27-1), 1970 (26-1), 1996 (28-1, with the lone loss coming to Cal's UMass squad), and 2010 (27-1) -- Not surprisingly, five of the eight previous quick-starting Wildcat teams made the championship game of either the NCAA Tournament or NIT (UK made the NIT championship game in 1947, an era in which the NCAA and NIT tourneys both claimed to crown a "national champion"), with three of those teams winning the national title ('49, '51, '96), which obviously bodes well for this edition of the Wildcats.
One of the teams that did not make a season-ending tournament final was the the 1954 UK squad, which finished the year 25-0. That team opted to not play in the NCAA Tournament after the NCAA passed legislation which prohibited graduate students from participating in post-season play, knocking UK's best players, All-America's Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, out of tourney action (the team voted to play in the post season, but were overrode by a miffed Adolph Rupp).
The only two Kentucky squads which posted at least a 19-1 start to the season, but did not play in a championship game (excluding the '54 team), were the 1970 (Dan Issel and Mike Pratt were that team's best players) and 2010 teams, which both lost in the regional finals. End of history lesson, now on to the evaluation.
Free throw shooting -- Through UK's first 10 games of the season the team was shooting a moderately pedestrian 67.5% from the charity stripe (154-228), but, over the last 10 contests the 'Cats have significantly improved from the line, connecting on 201-of-277 free throws for a much more palatable 74.7%. The Wildcats, in a stat all coaches strive to achieve, have made more free throws, 361 (12th nationally), than their opponents have attempted, 330.
The Wildcats' 505 free throw tries ranks 10th in the nation.
'Cat-valuation: I must admit, I had concerns early on with UK's free throw shooting. Or more pointedly, the lack of accuracy of UK's free throw shooting, particularly of Marquis Teague. But in an impressive charity stripe turnaround, both Teague and Anthony Davis dramatically improved their percentages -- In his first 10 games Davis made only 20-of-38 free throws (52.6%), but in the last 10 contests he's made 45-of-54 (83.3%). Teague, in his first nine games made 15-of-27 free tosses (55.6%), but in the last 11 he's connected on 27-of-34 from the line (79.4%). Another plus, Davis is going to the line more often now than he was: early on in the season he averaged 3.8 free throws per game, in the last 10 games Davis is averaging 5.4 shots from the line.
So spurred by the extra work Davis and Teague put in, and their corresponding improvement, the 'Cats have rebounded nicely and now lead the SEC in charity stripe connections, and oh, they make 'em when it matters, too.
Field goal percentage/scoring -- The 'Cats have held 12 opponents to sub-40.0% field goal accuracy, with Alabama's 48.0% shooting on Saturday being the highest percentage any opponent has posted this year against the 'Cats. On the season, UK is allowing, on average, only 36.3% field goal accuracy, No. 2 in the nation. UK's eFG% defense is likewise ranked 2nd in the nation, allowing a 40.9 eFG%. Additionally, only three UK opponents have logged an eFG% of over 50.0, while the 'Cats eFG% has been 50.0-plus a total of 13 times.
Kentucky's shooting, for most of the year, has been steady, with the 'Cats shooting 48.5% from the floor, good for 17th best in the nation. UK is making 36.6% of its 3-point attempts, which ranks 81st in the land, with UK's 3-point defense, which is holding the opposition to only 31.1% accuracy from long-range, ranking 58th in the nation.
Kentucky is 7th in the nation in points per possession defense, allowing only .87 points per possession. Offensively, UK is averaging 1.15 points per possession, 7th in the nation.
The 'Cats average of 79.5 points per game is ranked 18th in the country, while the UK defense holds its opposition to an average of 59.7 points. Even more impressive, Kentucky has held all but three opponents under 70 points, and eight of twenty opponents under 60 points.
'Cat-valuation: It's difficult to gush about the 'Cats defense -- although it's been very good this year -- after the borderline inept second half interior D UK played against Bama on Saturday. But I won't belabor the point, except to say, Anthony Davis cannot block every shot ... I hope this is something his band-mates are aware of, now.
Otherwise, UK, led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis, is very solid defensively, mostly because of the team's length, and the wingspan of Ant. But I would be remiss if I didn't include ample praise for the job MKG has done on the defensive end this year. His sheer hustle and ability to disrupt the opposition's offensive aim by making players change directions, and getting in passing lanes, has been a key to UK's success. Also, his legendary hustle, thankfully, has become contagious -- His teammates have seen MKG play D, and they either want to just keep up, or, not get shown up. Either way is alright by me.
When it comes to UK's defense, in my mind, the percentages don't lie ... not much anyway.
Offensively, the Cats, who have been running the DDM offense a lot lately -- after not running it at all early in the year -- have been, as the numbers suggest, fairly efficient in getting the ball in the basket. Lamb is shooting the ball extremely well from distance (50.0% in SEC play, 46.7% on the year), and Davis, with his put-backs, dunks, and tip-ins, is sporting a 63.0 field goal percentage. Miller is starting to heat up (while becoming a bit more assertive), having made 24-of-60 from long range (40.0%) over the last 15 games (after starting the season 1-of-11). Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have also shot the ball well, making 48.4% and 50.0% from the field respectively.
Anytime a team shoots well from the outside, and has a big man on the interior who makes 60-plus percent of his shots (and can run the floor like a tiger chasing dinner), the efficiency of their scoring should be strong. Encountering all manner of zone defenses is always a concern, but as long as the Cats continue to take good shots, they'll likely continue to be one of the nation's premiere offensive teams.
Rebounding -- Kentucky is 10th in the nation with 802 total rebounds, as well as 10th in the nation in rebounds per game with 40.1. The 'Cats rank 18th in the nation with an offensive rebound percentage of 39.0, while the corresponding opponent's defensive rebound percentage of 61.0 also ranks 18th in the country. UK is 13th in the nation with 541 total defensive rebounds.
'Cat-valuation: This team should rebound better than they do -- I know, that may sound crazy based on the numbers from above -- but not unlike a/some player[s] relaxing on the defensive end because of the presence of Davis in the middle, it's probably not uncommon for some of the Wildcats to take for granted that Davis has a particular rebound, when in fact, he doesn't. Just a theory. Hope I'm wrong, but if not, it's something that the UK coaching staff has to get a grip on.
Assist/Turnover ratio -- The Wildcats have handed out 267 assists (13.4 pg) and committed 260 turnovers (13.0 pg), for an assist/turnover ratio of 1.03, which ranks 104th in the nation (not a horrible number, but definitely a number that needs some assist -ance). UK's opponents have dished out 207 assists (10.4 pg) to 280 turnovers (14.0 pg), for an assist/turnover ratio of .74, good for 51st in the nation.
The Wildcats' turnover percentage is 18.9 (264th in the nation), while UK's opponents turn it over 20.2% of the time (134th in the country). UK's assist percentage checks in at 47.8, good for 304th in the nation, with Kentucky's opponent's assist percentage being 48.3, 66th in the nation.
The 'Cats, through their first 20 games, have handed out more assists than turnovers in 10 games, and committed more turnovers than assists nine times. UK averages 15.5 assists in games it records more dimes, in games the 'Cats have more turns, the team averages 11.4 assists.
Kentucky has single-digit assists in four games this year (twice in the last three games), and single-digit turnovers in six games.
'Cat-valuation: I'm not super concerned about the lack of assists, primarily because UK is averaging 79.5 points per game, and its points per possession number is an excellent 1.15. If the 'Cats were struggling to score, then I would have issues with the assist numbers. What the 'Cats' assist totals tells me, though, are two things, 1) UK is not running as much as it would like, and 2) Marquis Teague is a freshman point guard. In my mind, it's really just that simple.
And for those who pine for the past, last year's Final Four team averaged but only 12.6 assists per game, led by Brandon Knight's 4.2 dimes per game and DeAndre Liggins' 2.5. Of course this year's squad is averaging 13.4 assists, led by Teague's 4.3 and Miller's 2.4. Nearly identical.
The turnovers? It's awfully hard to find anything wrong with averaging 13 turns per game. In my view, anything under 12 miscues a game is outstanding, although UK's turnover percentage rates low nationally. Teague is averaging 3.2 turns in 32.0 minutes of play, and I'm not going to hang a frosh point for those numbers.
Blocks -- Thanks to the superhuman defensive efforts of UK center Anthony Davis (and his 4.7 blocks per contest), Kentucky leads the nation in both blocks per game with 9.3, and block percentage, 15.7. UK, as a team, has seven games with double-digit blocks.
UK's opponents have answered the 'Cats "swattage" by blocking 65 Wildcat shots, for an average of 3.3 per game.
'Cat-valuation: Anthony Davis is simply a freak of nature, and I mean that in the best possible way. First of all, he grows eight inches in a matter of months, but instead of being a gawky, uncoordinated big man project, he's morphed into a defensively intimidating, shot swatting machine (and is offense isn't too bad either).
Davis' mechanics are very good, from his footwork to his disciplined defensive play (read: he doesn't often go for the pump fake), and he's only getting better, game-by-game. And with his 93 blocks, or 4.7 per game, Davis is on pace (based on him playing 35 games) to block 164 shots, which would place him fifth on UK's CAREER shot blocking list.
It's not just Davis, though, both Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones are blocking their fair share, with Jones averaging 1.9 (same as last year), and MKG 1.2 blocks per game. Even Kyle Wiltjer and Eloy Vargas are blocking shots, with the two combining for 18 (nine apiece).
This team, along with swatting shots in the lane, seems to block an inordinate amount of perimeter shots, also. I don't have the numbers, but my guess is that MKG and Miller (along with Davis) have blocked more than a few would be 3-point shots, leaving the opponents to ask, OK, where can we shoot it from?
Coaching -- I threw in this category just to write: in two-and-a-half seasons at UK, John Calipari and his outstanding staff have won 83 games and lost 13. That's an .865 winning percentage.
'Cat-valuation: Raise your hand if you thought UK would be as successful, so quickly, when Cal's crew arrived. John Robic, Orlando Antigua, and Kenny Payne, along with Cal, deserve great credit for getting the players it takes to win big, to Kentucky. And after getting the great individuals, turning them into a team.
This year, as everyone surely knows, this team needs to continue to get better. I agree with Jim Spanarkel, who called the color for Saturday's game, when he said, this Kentucky squad is better now than they were in November. Presently, though, I would give the 'Cats only a 50-50 chance of beating the top flight teams on a neutral floor. Ohio State, Syracuse, North Carolina (even without Dexter Strickland), maybe even Duke and Missouri, are the teams I'm referring to; the teams this Kentucky group is going to have to beat to win a championship. And right now, I'm not as confident in victory as I want to be, but, it's still only January, and Cal's teams, both at Memphis and at UK, have a nasty habit of turning on the burners late in the year. And besides, the guys are 19-1 ... who am I to complain?
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!