Kentucky Basketball: Transition Defense More Closely Examined

Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

Transition defense is really hurting Kentucky, particularly after rebounds.

Both in the postmortem and in the comments, we have all been talking about Kentucky's difficulty with transition defense. I wanted to see if we could pinpoint the problem even further, so I went over to Hoop-Math to see if I could use their play-by-play based statistics to help identify exactly what is going on.

Sure enough, by examining their stats, we identify the problem more precisely. Hoop-Math keeps statistics on a couple of different slices of the time clock when it comes to transition defense. Let's get right into it:

Kentucky
Stat Value Rank
eFG% Non-transition 41.9% 13
eFG% Transition 53.9% 188
eFG% 0-10 sec. After rebound 54.0% 218
eFG% 11-35 sec. After rebound 37.9% 12
eFG% 0-10 sec. After score 44.8% 123
eFG% 11-35 sec. After score 38.8% 9
eFG% 0-10 sec. After steal 64.6% 245
eFG% 11-35 sec. After steal 31.2% 32

Let's break this down:

  • The first stat, eFG% non-transition, is for comparative purposes. This is Kentucky's eFG% allowed after their defense is set. As you can see, it is a very good number, less than 42%, and ranks 13th best among all teams.

  • The next stat, eFG% transition, is the eFG% allowed for all transition defense. As you can see, Kentucky is much worse in this stat, allowing almost 54%. As a comparison, if Kentucky allowed that kind of shooting across the board, we'd probably be under .500 for the year, even if our offense were as good as it currently is.

  • The next three stats are slices of time under three different conditions: After a rebound, after a score, and after a steal, which encompasses most of the outcomes of each possession. The time slices are transition, 0-10 seconds after the rebound, and non-transition, 11-35 seconds after the rebound. Notably, transition after a turnover is not included, but since non-steal (or dead-ball) turnovers are similar (but not identical) to possession after a score, you can consider their value to be nearly identical to a post-score effort.

You may be inclined to think that after a steal is where the Wildcats are worst, but live-ball turnovers have a very high transition conversion rate for most teams playing quality opponents. Kentucky's is bad, but fortunately, Kentucky takes good enough care of the ball that live-ball turnovers are relatively rare, totaling approximately 3% of shot attempts.

After rebounds is where the combination of how often it happens, and the shooting percentage, do the most damage. After rebounds, you wind up in transition defense significantly more often than after a score (10.5% vs 7.2%), and if the offense can get in transition, it forces the defense to run further and faster after a rebound than under any other conditions. This, as you can see, is where Kentucky's real weakness lies. That's because rebounds are the second-most likely outcome of a possession, with a score being the most likely.

Just for comparison, let's look at KenPom.com's leading team in defensive efficiency, Arizona:

Arizona
Stat Value Rank
eFG% Non-transition 39.4% 1
eFG% Transition 52.0% 123
eFG% 0-10 sec. After rebound 40.2% 6
eFG% 11-35 sec. After rebound 20.9% 18
eFG% 0-10 sec. After score 50.0% 191
eFG% 11-35 sec. After score 39.1% 10
eFG% 0-10 sec. After steal 72.5% 325
eFG% 11-35 sec. After steal 41.3% 129

It's pretty easy to see that in transition overall, Arizona is a little, but not a lot, better than Kentucky, but Arizona allows teams to get into transition far less than Kentucky does, 18% vs 24%, subjecting them to their good half-court defense more often. Where they are significantly better is in transition defense after a rebound, allowing almost the same percentage as they do in non-transition offense, and an even better percentage in later offense.

Arizona is not more athletic than Kentucky, but they are more experienced. That doesn't quite explain the difference in transition defense, but it does illustrate exactly why, in large part, the Missouri Tigers were able to erase 12 points of a 15-point lead, and put Kentucky in danger of losing a game they should have easily salted away.

There is no doubt that the coaching staff are well aware of Kentucky's transition problems. I don't know exactly how you solve it other than hustle, because that's the root of the problem. In order to be a good transition team, you have to be either really quick in changing direction, or you have to exert extra effort to beat the offensive team down the floor.  It is possible that Kentucky's big guards are one reason why the Wildcats have struggled in transition.  If you look at the tape, you'll see that Kentucky was very often even with or behind Missouri in transition, and that is bad. You have to be ahead by at least several steps in order to get into position, find your man, and stop the basketball.

So there it is — our transition problems reflected in the statistics.  Now, if Kentucky can solve this problem, their defense will get significantly better.

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