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Kentucky Basketball: Busting the Myth of Bad Shooting

When shooting, Kentucky players go to the rim a lot more often than they settle for threes.  That will help prevent a poor shooting performance on Saturday.
When shooting, Kentucky players go to the rim a lot more often than they settle for threes. That will help prevent a poor shooting performance on Saturday.
Gary Parrish has a piece up today previewing Kentucky in the Final Four as part of a series that CBS has looking at each team left in the tournament. It's pretty standard fare: how they got here, why they'll win, top players - you know the drill with these kinds of things. Another common element is to discuss a weakness for each team, a reason why they might not win the tournament. Kentucky really doesn't have many weaknesses so Parrish chose the bugaboo that has hit the last two UK teams in the tournament as well as some of Cal's other top squads - shooting. Specifically, 3 point shooting.
An elite John Calipari team is always just one bad shooting performance away from losing to an inferior opponent in the NCAA tournament. It's how his Memphis team lost to UCLA in the 2006 Elite Eight as a No. 1 seed and how his Kentucky team lost to West Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight as a No. 1 seed. Granted, this team shoots it better than those teams. But what happens if the Wildcats throw up a 6-of-28 effort from beyond the arc against Louisville or Kansas or Ohio State in New Orleans like it threw up against Vanderbilt in New Orleans a few weeks back? Answer: They'll lose. Again. And then it's all over.
I don't want to be too hard on Gary - when you write these kinds of capsule articles you have to come up with something as a weakness and the Cats don't leave much to choose from. I give him some credit for going in a different direction than "They aren't a deep team" which has been the popular choice for a UK weakness this season. But this really isn't the best alternative to use. A bad shooting game can rise up to hurt any team, but the idea that somehow Kentucky is especially vulnerable to a bad shooting night is silly and simply not supported by what has happened this season.

A bad shooting game requires two components for it to really hurt a team: they have to shoot a poor percentage obviously, but they also have to attempt enough threes for it to matter. If the Cats go 1-4 on three point shots that's a bad percentage, but on 4 shots it probably isn't going to matter much so long as the other field goal attempts are coming closer to the rim.


(click for larger image)

The chart above shows the game-by-game results for the number of 3pt Attempts the Cats took along with their 3pt FG% in each game. The axes are set so that they cross at Kentucky's average of 15.5 attempts per game and the break-even mark of 33.3% shooting on 3's. This essentially divides the games into 4 quadrants:

  • Top Left: Good shooting combined with below average attempts
  • Top Right: Good shooting combined with above average attempts
  • Bottom Left: Poor shooting combined with below average attempts
  • Bottom Right: Poor shooting combined with above average attempts

Only the Bottom Right quadrant represents a truly bad shooting game: low accuracy with enough attempts for it to really matter. You'll notice that the Vanderbilt game Parrish references is a distinct outlier. This Kentucky team just does not take a lot of threes and they do not force the issue when they aren't shooting well in a game. That's very encouraging. You'll also notice that in the tournament so far (yellow dots) Kentucky has been really conservative on taking threes, preferring to get to the rim instead.

It's always possible that the Cats will suddenly panic and start jacking up more and more shots from the perimeter, but with the exception of the SEC Tournament Final it hasn't happened all season even when they might have had cause to do so. The team has faced deficits of 3 possessions or more against North Carolina, Indiana, and Mississippi St this year and have not reacted by going overboard on threes. Against UNC they shot 4-17: a poor percentage but only on a slightly higher-than-average number of shots. Against Indiana they shot 2-7: again a poor percentage but very few shots. Against Mississippi St they went 6-16 which is basically their average in both attempts and accuracy.

This team has faced both big deficits and poor shooting games and have nearly always responded by going inside rather than settling for perimeter shots. Is it really all that likely that they will behave any differently now?