The Kentucky Wildcats have been making mincemeat of their early-season opponents, but in the first half of the game against the Texas-Arlington Mavericks, we saw what can happen when Kentucky plays well at both ends of the court, and what happened was an astonishing 55-12 score that saw the Wildcats score 1.4 points per possession while holding the Mavericks under 0.32. That’s one of the more impressive basketball performances you will ever see.
UTA did an impressive job of turning that around in the second half, and made a very respectable showing by playing nearly even with Kentucky. To be fair, it was pretty clear to me that Kentucky had lost a significant amount of their intensity due to the lopsided first-half score, but most of the improvement in the Mavericks fortune can be attributed to something that won’t be lost on future coaches — the way to take away some of Kentucky’s defensive prowess is not to try to attack their strength, but spread them out and seek open perimeter shots, back-cuts and defensive breakdowns.
Some UK fans will be tempted to pooh-pooh that, but I urge them to reconsider. Forcing the Wildcats to guard a spread-out team closely takes advantage of the leverage smaller teams can get in quickness. Time and again we saw UK’s towering squad beaten off the dribble in the second half, leading to disruptive forays into the middle of the court, forcing help that left players open for good looks, some of which were made.
It’s open to debate if a team can make enough of those shots consistently over UK’s length to actually win ballgames, and not many quality teams have the kind of quickness that can be used to exploit such a strategy, particularly high Division I squads. Also, Kentucky going to a zone defense would likely counter that strategy, forcing every shot to be beyond the arc and challenged. That’s a tough way to win a game. Also, as Kentucky gets better defending man-to-man, it will become more difficult for players to drive by their defender as they learn to back off and hedge out on the perimeter — shooting every shot from 28 feet is not a competitive offensive strategy.
Regardless, what we have learned beyond doubt is that driving the ball into Kentucky’s defensive strength is not just a recipe for failure, but possibly for a beat-down of historic and unprecedented magnitude. That 55-12 first half score could have easily been duplicated, or even worse, against Kansas if Kentucky had been making shots. What we saw last night is what happens when you try to go at Kentucky’s size when they are making shots, and it should disabuse any sane coach of the notion that it can be a successful game plan.
Kentucky finished with their best offensive performance of the season, an efficiency of 1.31 points per possession (130.6 points/100 possessions). When UK makes threes, they may be impossible to beat. The problem is, they don’t make enough of them consistently.
Assist percentage has consistently been excellent this season, and last night’s game was no exception. Kentucky assisted on 63% of made baskets, and several of the passes were singular in their unselfishness.
44% 3-point shooting is hard on an opponent in the best of circumstances, but against the defense that UK puts up, it may well be impossible to overcome. If this team can shoot 40% from the three this year on average, I think they are a shoo-in for the Final Four. But 3-point shooting remains suspect. It’s getting better, though.
26% turnovers is downright unacceptable from this team. Kentucky had at least 8 careless, needless turnovers that should gall Calipari a lot, mostly from unnecessary long passes, hot-dogging and trying to do too much with too small a window. Just make the easy play, guys.
26% blocks is murder. If even half are turnovers, that’s an ugly stat if you are a UK opponent.
Kentucky managed only 6 steals (9%) last night. That’s a little lower than I’d like, but they did back off the press in the second half and didn’t get that many opportunities to press in the first.
I know everyone is pleased to see the free throw numbers improve. That’s quite normal, and if they keep going on a general upward trend toward 70%, Kentucky will be even harder to beat than they already are.
Again, I’m just going to note the performances that stood out to me.
Once again, the game ball must be shared, this time between Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker, two freshmen. All towns did was shoot a perfect 5-5 from the floor, pull down 11 boards, 4 assists, 3 blocks, a steal, zero turnovers and a partridge in a pear tree.
Devin Booker was 7-8 from the floor including 5-6 from the arc for 19 big points, had an assist, 2 steals, and 1 turnover. He was the primary reason for the first half offensive explosion.
Alex Poythress struggled shooting but had a great game. 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocks and only 2 turnovers. He is becoming a lockdown defender. He doesn’t do it like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but he achieves a similar result.
Trey Lyles was really bad with the ball, having five turnovers, but he did get 9 rebounds and shot it really well.
Andrew Harrison was great. He probably doesn’t get the accolades he deserves, and he has really immersed himself into the role of point guard this season. He had 11 quiet but efficient points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and only 1 turnover to go with a steal.
Dakari Johnson was what he always is, except for one thing — a knock-down free throw shooter. UTA employed an obvious "Hack-a-Dak" strategy, fouling him every time he touched the ball in the post. He responded by making 12-14 for 12 points, all of them from the line. He had 6 rebounds, 3 turnovers and 2 blocks.
Tyler Ulis didn’t score, but his 5 assist to only 1 turnover deserve mentioning. He also had a steal.
Tying it all up
Unlike last season, Kentucky has established it's identity very early this year; as the pre-eminent defensive team in the nation, and that is who they are. Kentucky guards you with a rare passion and dedication that was almost totally absent from last year’s team, and if continues, will have them mentioned alongside the great defensive teams ever in college basketball. Now the Wildcats are beginning to assert themselves offensively as well, and that is bad news for everybody else.
I think we all know why this happens. It takes time to get used to expending so much energy on defense and learning how to integrate the exertion into your offense. Defensive exertion affects a player’s offensive game in negative ways when it doesn’t result in a steal and easy layup, and until that effort is fully integrated into a player’s game, they wind up not getting good lift on jumpers and leaving shots short and on the rim. We are starting to see that integration take place, and nobody is a better measuring stick than Devin Booker. Some of the bigs, like Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles and Dakari are still a work in progress when it comes to that.
Kentucky has now played six games, and in those six, it has not allowed a single team to score more than 0.88 points per possession, and that was largely due to one half of basketball against the Buffalo Bulls. Kentucky has allowed only the aforementioned Bulls to shoot better than 40% eFG, and held 3 teams to 30% or less.
What we are seeing, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, is what we hoped to see last year — the emergence of a team so dominant it can barely be comprehended by fans or the commentariat. This is the kind of team we have always lived for, hoped for, and imagined coming to life before our eyes.