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Kentucky Basketball: Is Kentucky Tiring Down the Stretch?

I have seen some concern in several comments worrying that the starters for the 'Cats are playing too many minutes, and inevitable concerns about tired legs.  Coach Cal has shortened the rotation progressively as the season has worn on.

Is this a legitimate concern?  Well, thanks to the excellent John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus and an article intriguingly titled, "Duke collapsing, and other rites of spring," we have something of an answer.

Gasaway looks at the percentage of minutes the starters are playing for a number of the top teams this year.  He does so to discuss an entirely different point, but it works nicely for the question of Kentucky players as well.  To wit:

Pct of Total
Georgetown 82
Ohio St. 80
Duke 75
Temple 74
Gonzaga 73
West Virginia 73
Syracuse 72
Purdue 71
Kentucky 70
New Mexico 70
Kansas 69
Vanderbilt 68
BYU 67
Kansas St. 66
Villanova 64
Michigan St. 60

More after the jump.

So we can see by the table above Coach Cal is playing his starting players 70% of the minutes.  How does that compare to his Memphis teams?

2008-09  72%
2007-08  67%
2006-07  63%

So looking at his past three teams, it looks like Calipari started using the rotation tightening process rather recently.  I have no idea if he looks at the actual numbers, but it looks like he has settled on around 70% usage for his starters  I would love to do a trend analysis over his last few years to see how much he tightens the rotation around tournament time as compared to the regular season, but that is just a bit too much work for me at the moment.

Still, I think this gives us a pretty good idea that this UK team is in the same ball park as his last two Memphis Tigers teams, and his rotation isn't anywhere near as tight as the Georgetown Hoyas or Ohio State Buckeyes, and is somewhat looser than Coach K at Duke, who is being questioned about tired legs.

Gasaway rightly notes that Duke has a tendency to be very tough early in the ACC season, and then fade late.  At this point, looking at the points per possession numbers of Duke, the fade, if there is one, is quite gradual.  Duke started the ACC season at about 1.22 on offense and .85 on defense, and are now at 1.17 and .91 - a bit of a fade, but not terribly dramatic.

So how is Kentucky doing?  Well, let's take a look at a visualization:



What you see here are the raw points/possession data for UK and their opponent over the SEC portion of the season in the blue and yellow line respectively.  The red and green line show the average of the pts/possession and opponent pts/possession respectively.  Keep in mind that for the green and yellow line, lower is better.

So what does this graph tell us?  Well, it shows that while Kentucky's offensive PPP is getting worse, its defensive PPP is getting better.  In the final analysis, it is the spread between the two that really matters, and while we can see the spread narrowing over the last two games, overall, it looks pretty darn good.

Of course this graph doesn't account for the toughness of the game, and the last two have been on the road against two very good basketball teams.  But what really stands out to me is that we managed to hold the Vanderbilt Commodores, a very good team, to .78 pts/possession on their own floor.  The 'Dores also held UK way down as well, but that's just indicative of how tough that game was for both teams.  By comparison, neither the Mississippi St. Bulldogs nor the Tennessee Volunteers game look as tough, even though they both looked tough to me.

The bottom line is, just like Duke, Kentucky's offensive efficiency has declined throughout the season, but not a tremendous amount.  Conversely, Kentucky's defensive efficiency has improved by an even greater amount than the offense has declined. 

Obviously, the biggest explanation for that are conference teams having a better understanding of how to play each other as the season wears on, but we cannot completely rule out fatigue as a factor.  But if you will refer to the article I linked above, you will see that Duke's decline last year was in their defensive efficiency, not offensive, and it takes more energy to play defense than offense.

In the final analysis, I am very encouraged by what these numbers tell us.