Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats Are Baby Steps Away From Being A Great Team

Andy Lyons

It's surprising how little Kentucky needs to do to become a truly powerful team.

Let's stop for just a second and take a brief look at where Kentucky is succeeding, and where they need some work, when it comes to the basketball team. What I'll do here is examine the Four Factors that we are all familiar with, and move on to a few other important numbers. No, we're not going into a lot of statistical detail here, just some general observations. All these numbers come from KenPom.com, which is a subscription site (but well worth the price to me). Here we go:

  • Shooting — Kentucky is a good, but by no means great shooting team. They have an effective FG% of 52%, 74th in the nation. Not bad, but definitely not the stuff of the 2012 Wildcats, who were more efficient at 54%, but it is every bit as good as last year's national champs, the Louisville Cardinals, who shot 50.5%. Defensively, Kentucky is holding teams to 43% eFG%, 12th in the nation.

  • Turnovers — Kentucky is turning the ball over on 18.6% of possessions, right on the Division I average. While that's not bad, it's not good either. This is an important area of improvement for UK, and in recent games, it has improved significantly. From a defensive standpoint, Kentucky doesn't force many turnovers. In fact, Kentucky is 325th out of 351 teams in forcing turnovers. As we all know, this is in like with Calipari's philosophy. Forcing turnovers is not his thing. He doesn't like gambling on defense, and he doesn't like the fouls trying to force turnovers can cause.

    We may see this stat go up, though, if Kentucky continues to press in the full court like they did against Louisville. I don't ever expect to see UK force 30% turnovers like Louisville routinely does, but 18% would be nice.

  • Offensive rebounding — Let's just cut right to the chase — Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in the nation by a mile. UK is almost 2 percentage points better than their nearest competitor, the Cincinnati Bearcats. For comparison, Kentucky's 2009-10 team with DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson was fully 5 points worse than this UK team is, and if the Wildcats keep this up, they could be the best offensive rebounding team since Kenpom started keeping the stat in 2003.

    When it comes to defensive rebounding, Kentucky is only about average, but considering how good they are on the offensive glass, it almost doesn't matter.

  • Free throw attempts per shot attempt — Kentucky is again #1 in this statistic in the land, but unlike offensive rebounding, it is not by a lot. In fact, they are technically tied with Texas-San Antonio. Still, it is a good place to be, but rendered somewhat less than totally potent by Kentucky's free throw shooting , which right now is 66.5%, 257th in the nation and well below the D-I average of 69.2%. Think of it this way — the FTA/FGA statistic at this level of free throw shooting is approximately 4% less valuable than an average Division 1 team with the same stat, and 12% less valuable than a "good" free throw shooting team (75%).

    Obviously, this is what we would call an unexploited opportunity, or in the vernacular, leaving easy points on the floor. Sticking with clichés, this is what you would call low-hanging fruit.

That covers the Four Factors. Kentucky really has some good stats, but needs to shoot the ball better from everywhere to fully exploit them. Moving on to some other examples:

  • 3-point shooting — Kentucky is shooting 31.0% from the arc, and that is not a good number. As has often been mentioned, you need to shoot at least 33% from the arc to be equivalent to 50% from the 2. That is more low-hanging fruit, because there is no more excuse for Kentucky to shoot that poorly from three than there is to shoot poorly from the free-throw line.

  • 2-point shooting — Kentucky is excellent at 54.4%, 18th in the land. They'd be better off if they never took a three, based on those numbers.

  • Block % — This will become more meaningful in conference, but right now, UK is 11th in the nation blocking almost 17% of opponent shots attempted.

Overall, what I see in these stats is one huge neon sign that says, "Opportunity for greatness!" This team is doing the hard things very well, and the easy things comparatively poorly. That's the kind of situation that, if you're going to find yourself with deficiencies, is the best possible one to wind up in. This team can get vastly better by just doing three things better — free throw shooting, 3-point shooting, and taking care of the ball.

As powerful as Kentucky is, it's almost impossible to pick which of the 3 is the most impactful, but if I had to guess it would be 3-point shooting in a close race with free-throw shooting. Turnovers would help too, because they translates to possessions, something UK uses to score almost 1.18 points per each.

I am really excited about what I see in Kentucky's numbers, and much less frustrated with the three losses than I was a week or two ago. This team, with minor improvement, can become a juggernaut, something we all suspected pre-season, but haven't seen much direct evidence of so far. This is indirect evidence of great things to come, and Camp Cal could not have possible come at a better time.

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