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Kentucky Basketball: How Much Do Turnovers Hurt? This Much

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Sometimes, one single statistic can hurt, or improve a basketball team disproportionately. For Kentucky, that statistic is turnovers.

Turnovers hurt this year's team much more than last year's.
Turnovers hurt this year's team much more than last year's.

Jeff Haley at SB Nation has a really great article for those of us who love the statistical side of college basketball. Another good thing is that because of how he manages to simplify possession-based stats and combine them into a straightforward waterfall chart, it is easy to understand. With those tools, he points out the statistical reasons why Kentucky is not as good this year as last.

Look, we all know that the talent this year is not as good, We know that the Wildcats have less experience, too. And we also know that UK has lost it's best player to injury. All these things are factors, but what we are about to look at here is the numbers behind those factors. I'm just going to concentrate on one -- turnovers.

First of all, I’m not beating on this year’s team. What the analysis really points up is just how impressive Kentucky was last year. The SEC was significantly better last year than this, and Kentucky completely dominated the conference. Florida’s numbers look almost as good this year, but the reality is, that’s more a function of the competition than anything else.

Back to the point. What really got my attention in Haley's article was this:

The first thing that jumps out in that chart is just how much of a difference turnovers are making for the Wildcats this season. Roughly half of the reduction in scoring efficiency for the Wildcats is due to an increase in turnovers.

The curious thing is just where this change in turnovers is coming from. Last season Kentucky point guard Marquis Teague was frankly a little shaky, turning the ball over in roughly 24 percent of the possessions that ended with the ball in his hands. It is usually a bad sign when a team’s point guard has such a high turnover rate, but in Kentucky’s case it didn’t matter, because virtually everyone else who contributed significantly on offense seldom turned the ball over. Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller all combined to use a large fraction of UK possessions while rarely losing the ball. This season, most of the guys on the roster have turnover rates that are more typical of college basketball players.

Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you concluded was that it’s Ryan Harrow, UK's up-and-down point guard, who’s doing all this turning-over. That is actually not right. Harrow is turning the ball over 16% of the time when a possession ends with the ball in his hands, which is pretty fine, and much better than Teague. The difference is, Anthony Davis, Doron Lamb and Terrance Jones all turned the ball over less than Harrow does. In addition, other than Teague, nobody on the team turned it over even 20% of the time, and most significantly less. On this year's team, both Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin turn the ball over 22% of the time.

Here’s the bottom line: When this year’s team turns it over less than 20% of possessions, they have won every single game but one, and that game was the Texas A&M game where the Wildcats could not stop Elston Turner, who dropped 40 on the Wildcats and led the Aggies to an offensive efficiency of 132. No team ever loses with an OE of 132, or at least, none that I can recall.

For comparison’s sake, last year’s Wildcats were over 20% turnovers only 11 times in 40 games. This year’s team has been over 20% 13 times in only 28 games. With the other factors that Haley points out, UK is likely to lose every game against a competitive team where it turns the ball over 20% or more, because the other factors affecting the defensive and offensive efficiency are all negative compared to last year. The margin of error, therefore, is much smaller.

So for those that seem stuck on Calipari’s comments that some turnovers are okay, recognize that 20% or more for this team lowers their chance of winning from 94% to 46%, if you go by the results this season. No game UK has won with >= 20% turnovers has been against a high-quality opponent.

So if Kentucky goes in to Fayetteville and succumbs to the Razorback pressure, this game tomorrow is not going to be a victory. The single most important thing Kentucky can do to improve their chances for winning tomorrow is take care of the basketball.

There is a lot more in Haley’s article that deserves your attention, so read the whole thing.