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Kentucky Basketball: Perspective Is Hard To Come By In 2011

Perspective.  It's something all basketball fans of good will desire, and the Big Blue Nation is no different.  We all want to be able to put our teams in perspective, and that has been very difficult to do for this Kentucky team.

The biggest reason, perhaps, is the wholesale replacement of personnel necessitated by the unprecedented five players from UK chosen in the first round of last year's draft.  Continuity from year to year is something every team would like to have plenty of, and something that Kentucky fans were used to seeing under Tubby Smith and even Billy Gillispie.  Calipari, however, not only set new standards for recruiting talent, he set them so high that the talent moved on to the next level, leaving this year's Wildcat team stacked with freshmen.

But what freshmen!  Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb have all had a huge impact on the fortunes of the Wildcats this season, and the perspective that many in the Big Blue Nation have been missing is how much improvement this team has made in a short time. 

Back in the Maui Invitational when Kentucky lost to the Connecticut Huskies by a wide margin, the 'Cats ended almost every possession on an individual move, mostly challenged shots at the basket.  Communication was non existent, and passing was rare as evidenced by only 9 assisted baskets.  Brandon Knight's Roland Rating, a measure of individual team impact, was -17 for that game.  That's very un-good, and he had a lot of company in that category.

Since then, what a change has been wrought by John Calipari and his staff.  The Wildcats are now moving the ball much better.  How much better?  Take a look at this chart, which shows the assist% trend for this year:

Notice that 11/24 game?  That was the UConn game, and as you can see, that represents the nadir of the season in assist percentage for Kentucky.  But what a change since then.

Just a few weeks ago here at A Sea of Blue, there was considerable consternation about the assists and where they were going, and for good reason; assists are at the heart of a team that not only shares the basketball on offense, but communicates with each other, trusts each other, and knows each other's tendencies.  Back in November, none of these players communicated, nobody knew anybody's tendencies, they shared the ball with reluctance and trust was a rare commodity.  Fast forward to January and the opposite of all four has become the order of the day.

You will hear a lot of professional sportscasters and commentators complain that Calipari's short bench is the weakness of the Wildcats, and Calipari himself does much to promote that impression.  Of course, what nobody is telling you is that the tight rotation Calipari his playing has allowed his best players to become so familiar with one another that they have solved the huge problem evidenced by the graphic above, namely sharing the ball, trusting each other, communicating and knowing the tendencies of your teammates.  The results have been pretty impressive.

This is not to say that Kentucky does not need more depth, they do.  You never know when someone like Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood are going to be called upon to play extended minutes due to foul trouble -- it has nearly happened a couple of times, and it will become more likely as the year wears on, particularly on the road.

But John Calipari plays a short rotation for a reason, and that reason is simply that he knows he can trust these guys to go out and execute his game plan.  The problem with Jon Hood and Eloy Vargas right now is that both are defensive liabilities, and until they show that they can hold their own on defense, Calipari is reluctant to put them in games.  Remember, the Wildcats have the luxury of four strong offensive players (five if you count Harrellson lately), and neither Hood nor Vargas is needed to score.  What they are asked to do on this team is be trustworthy -- take care of their responsibility on defense, rebound, and come up with loose balls.  Neither of these guys has shown the ability to do that consistently.

So for now, Calipari is stuck with an extremely efficient short rotation that merely needs to stay in front of their man and play good position defense, and that theory has worked very well, primarily due to their quickness and high basketball IQ.  While commentators wear themselves out worrying that Kentucky is too thin to go deep in the tournament, they are ignoring the dramatic progress this team has made both in maturity and in chemistry.

Perspective.  Watching these guys play, it's hard to remember that this UK team is mostly freshmen, at least in terms of playing time.  The reality is, as the assist percent numbers show, this Kentucky basketball team has rapidly become a major contender nationally.  Few teams are as offensively gifted, especially but not exclusively from the perimeter as Kentucky, and Terrence Jones has yet to come into his own.  Don't be fooled by the stuff you hear coming out of the media -- Kentucky is neither too thin nor too young to win the national championship this year.  The short rotation has helped mature this team far more rapidly than most expected, and it's time to acknowledge that. 

Finally, until depth actually becomes an issue, it isn't an issue.  We've heard about it over and over again, but how many games has Kentucky lost because of a depth problem?  Arguably only once, at North Carolina, and there were several other factors that were probably as important as depth in that game.

Perspective.  Pay attention to what Kentucky has done, not to what others say they are.