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Kentucky Basketball: Is 3-Point Shooting the Weakness of the Wildcats?

Kyle Wiltjer has quickly become the Wildcats' most lethal threat from 3-point range.  Expect to see a lot of him against zones in the NCAA Tournament.
Kyle Wiltjer has quickly become the Wildcats' most lethal threat from 3-point range. Expect to see a lot of him against zones in the NCAA Tournament.

Lost Lettermen has an article up today arguing that Vanderbilt exposed Kentucky's weakness last Sunday in the SEC Tournament championship game:

But Lamb and Miller combined to go just 3-of-16 from 3-point range on Sunday, exposing a fatal flaw that previously wasn’t there for the Wildcats. And you can bet teams like Connecticut, Indiana, Baylor, Duke or whoever Kentucky faces on the road to New Orleans will use Vandy’s blueprint and make those two players beat them from the outside while mauling Jones and Davis in the paint.

Even more concerning is the fact Miller has not historically been a big factor for UK in the tournament (0-of-6 in that game vs. West Virginia) and Lamb was quiet last year in the postseason prior to the Final Four game against Connecticut.

It's a historical fact that bad 3-point shooting was a factor in the loss to West Virginia two years ago, but the truth of the matter is that was more likely a symptom than a root cause. 3-point shooting has a history of deserting good teams, not just Kentucky, at inopportune times. Florida, for instance, went just 3 of 14 in their regional final game against the Butler Bulldogs, despite having been a 35% 3-point shooting team all year. No, that's not as nasty as 4 for 32, but 3-point shooting was also a known weakness of 2010 Kentucky coming into the NCAA Tournament.

The upshot of all this is that what UK had against Vandy was a bad shooting day. Now, one may argue persuasively whether or not the correct thing to do is to continue to fire away from 3-point range like Kentucky did, and I think a strong argument can be made that was the wrong strategy to employ. Ultimately, that decision falls with Calipari. He could have done any number of things to get better looks closer to the basket, but he opted to trust his players.

Here's how Calipari characterized the Vanderbilt game:

"We just missed shots and, folks, these kids are not machines," Calipari said. "They're not computers. It's not automatic. And how about this? Maybe now everybody realizes we're not invincible. We're like everybody else out there."

Of course, that's true, but will that wash if UK does something similar in the NCAA tournament? Probably not. Having seen this, Calipari will need to create a "plan b" that gives UK the best chance of surviving a cold shooting night or a particularly effective zone, and given that he has faced both before, I think we can depend upon him to have something up his sleeve other than "Keep doing what you're doing, guys, they're open looks!"

One of those "things" might be to bring in Kyle Wiltjer, who was by far the Wildcats' most effective shooter against Vandy. Calipari commented the other day that Wiltjer made 76 three-pointers in five minutes in their 3-point practice drill, an all-time team record. Having Wiltjer in the game against Vandy could have forced them out of that zone, and why Cal didn't put him in there is anybody's guess -- and only adds fuel to the fire that Calipari has some shortcomings as a bench coach.

But the overarching point here is that Kentucky most definitely does not have a weakness from three. That is born out statistically, and everyone should understand that all teams have off days from the arc. Duke, no shrinking violet from 20'9" and a 38% 3-pont shooting team on the season has had games of 3-16, 5-26, and 3-15 this year, and Missouri, another team notable for outside accuracy has had 4-19, 5-21 and 6-21. Kentucky seems to be more susceptible to poor games from three than either of those worthies, but unlike those teams who get 31% of their points from the arc on the season, UK only gets 22% of their points from distance.

The bottom line is, a bad game from outside can definitely put UK in a more vulnerable position, but their prowess closer to the opponent's basket and how well they defend their own will be the main factors that determine how far the Wildcats go.