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Kentucky Basketball 2008: What have two exhibition games told us?

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Now that the exhibition season is in the books, it's time to take a look at what we have learned about the 2008 version of the Wildcats.  Most people would agree that you can't learn a great deal in games against strongly over-matched opponents, but I would argue that there are quite a few lessons to be learned, and trends to be uncovered.

The main thing we can look at is offense.  Here are how Kentucky's offensive stats look, per half, in the first two games, compared with two of our weaker early-season opponents last year:

Opponent UMSL OBU Avg UCA (2007) Liberty (2007) Avg Delta
FG% 1st half 0.63 0.59 61.00% 0.4 0.56 47.80% 13.20%
FG% 2nd half 0.47 0.5 48.70% 0.56 0.54 54.90% -6.20%
3-pt% 1st half 0.43 0.5 46.45% 0.38 0.5 43.75% 2.70%
3-pt% 2nd half 0.4 0.5 45.00% 0.5 0.11 30.55% 14.45%
FG% game 0.55 0.54 54.20% 0.47 0.55 51.00% 3.20%
1st half points 63 43 53 34 36 35 18
2nd half points 48 51 49.5 33 44 38.5 11
Total Points 111 94
67 80

So what conclusions can we draw from this?  Well, more than you might think, and some of them are fairly obvious.  The most glaring difference is in the number of points scored -- UK has scored an average of 29  more points per game this year than last against roughly similar competition.  Keeping in mind that a) Jodie Meeks was more or less healthy at this point last year and b) the conventional wisdom is that we had more scoring punch last year with Crawford and Bradley, it seems unlikely that we should be able to put up all those extra points.

The first part of the explanation for these apparently contradictory facts seems pretty clear to me, and probably to most in the Big Blue Nation -- the Kentucky coach was in transition last year trying to install a new system, and this year has no such mountain to climb.  The returning players are familiar with what the coach wants to do, and so are more comfortable, confident and efficient running it.  Not only that, Gillispie himself is much more comfortable at the helm of Kentucky, and it shows.

But that can't be all.  Let's face it, there are many new players on this year's team and none of them was familiar with Gillispie's system prior to coming to Kentucky.  Based solely on the foregoing explanation, we would expect to see the first team operate efficiently and the second team struggle, but that hasn't been the case.  That fact leads me to the conclusion that the overall talent level on this team is superior to the overall talent level last year, even accounting for player improvement and the two experienced and skillful guards UK lost to graduation and the one (Derrick Jasper) lost to transfer.

Clearly, the additional 29 ppg  would seem to lie athwart the assertions of those who have been parroting the conventional wisdom that wonders who will make up Bradley and Crawford's points.  The answer, at this point at least, appears to be the "everyone else" that was largely missing from last year's squad.

Now, some of you might wonder why I didn't evaluate the defensive stats, and the reason is that defensive play early in the year is very hard to judge.  As we saw against Ouachita, you wind up getting a lot of blocked shots against smaller teams that make the defense look better than it really is.  If we examine Ouachita's 3-point shooting stat, (46.4% on 13-28  shooting) we can clearly see that team defense has a way to go in that area, and  that particular statistic tends to be a harbinger of a team that has not developed good defensive cohesion.  Rebounding stats similarly are misleading, since the exhibition teams tend to be very small.  One valuable defensive stat would be deflections, but that statistic isn't publicly available.

The one other statistic worth examining would be turnovers, so let's do so:

Opponent UMSL OBU Avg UCA (2007) Liberty (2007) Avg Delta
Turnovers 14 20 17 16 13 14.5 2.5
Assists 24 17 20.5 11 18 14.5 6
Assist/TO 1.71 0.85 1.21 0.69 1.38 1 0.21

I consider this a bit less valuable than scoring, but it is still instructive.  We are doing somewhat better in the area of turnovers on average, although I would argue that the OBU game is more valuable on that point than any of the others, because they played a very tough man-to-man defense that clearly gave Kentucky some trouble.  Even then, however, we see a rather dramatic improvement in the number of assists, if not much change in the area of turnovers.  That tells me this team is very much a pass-first team, and that Gillispie's lessons about working the ball for good shots has hit home.

In conclusion, despite the conventional wisdom we have seen spouted from such luminaries as Rivals and CBS Sportsline and many other places around the Internet, in this writer's opinion the exhibition season has dispelled doubts that Kentucky will be the plodding, low-scoring, depth-challenged team of last year.  The 'Cats may not challenge North Carolina for national supremacy in the 2008-09 season, but it is clear on just the bare evidence of two "unimportant" exhbition games that, barring injury,  this UK team will likely contend for the SEC championship and be a dangerous team well into March.