The Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Columbia Lions last night in Rupp Arena, 56-46, but it was one of a continuing series of games where Kentucky’s offense has been very ugly and relatively inefficient against teams where their efficiency should’ve been much better. We’ll explore in depth exactly what was wrong, and it may surprise some of you.
Before we go further, we have to acknowledge the excellent effort by Columbia. As you would expect from an Ivy League team (keep in mind, a league that does not have athletics scholarships nor allow graduate student participation in athletics), the Lions were disciplined and moved the ball very well against Kentucky’s astonishing length. They did this by moving the Wildcats' defense into help position, then swinging the ball around the perimeter to an open 3-point shooter. The Lions are very good at basketball fundamentals, and they know they cannot get into fast games with superior athletes. So they counter this by reducing the number of possessions to the lowest possible level, which places a premium on good shots and punishes poor shot selection by an opponent. They did a great job of imposing their system on Kentucky last night, and even though it was ultimately unsuccessful, the game was quite competitive throughout. Kudos to the Lions on an excellent contest.
Many people will see Kentucky’s struggles as one of 3-point shooting, lack of defensive intensity, or poor ball movement. All those were factors at times, but the over-arching problem for Kentucky last night was missing short shots next to the basket. Another big problem, efficiency-wise, was free-throw shooting, which was the worst in a while.
Courtesy of Statsheet.com
2-point shooting looks okay, but Kentucky missed 5 of 8 layups taken. Making only .375 from point blank is no good, a team as big and strong as UK should be making at least 75% of those. Note that this doesn’t include dunks, obviously. This is an ongoing problem with this basketball team and is the direct result of rushing their offense, particularly in the post and in transition.
3-point shooting continues to be a problem. It really wasn’t a worry against this particular team, as most of the points were always going to come from inside the arc. The reason Kentucky was so inefficient was missed layups and free throws.
Speaking of free throw shooting, if we are going to make only 20% or so from three, we need to shoot way better than 59% from the line.
This game illustrates the way to beat Kentucky — slow the game down to 60 possessions or less and zone the heck out of them. A really good team from the perimeter, like, say, Wisconsin or Duke, might have beaten Kentucky yesterday by employing a similar strategy to that of the Lions.
Kentucky is still sharing the ball. Half the baskets made were assisted. There is a slight negative trend in this stat, however.
8% turnovers will make me happy … well, almost. What harshes my mellow is the fact that the turnovers all occurred in the first half.
52% on the offensive glass is great, and a free throw rate of 59% really is among the best we’ve seen all year. Kentucky did a good job of attacking off the dribble, even if they struggled to make the layups.
The game ball once again goes to Willie Cauley-Stein, although this time it was a very close call over Aaron Harrison. WCS did not shoot the ball particularly well at 4-7, but he had a double-double, an assist, a turnover and a block.
Aaron Harrison had a very acceptable offensive game even if his shooting from three remains off. He had 14 points on 5-10 from 2 and 1-5 from three, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, zero turnovers and three big steals. However, his man lit him up for 16 points and a couple of unfortunate defensive breakdowns led to points, which is why I gave WCS the game ball. Aaron’s defense wasn’t as great as his stat line makes it look.
Andrew Harrison shot the ball very badly, but he did have 3 assists and no turnovers. The problem was that he missed a bunch of layups, both off the bounce and in transition. He did some good things, but it’s imperative that he learn to finish better. He’s not going to be drafted making one of four layups.
I liked what I saw out of Trey Lyles last night. He didn’t shoot great, but he did yeoman’s work on the glass and got a couple of blocks.
Karl-Anthony Towns really struggled with missed putbacks and layups. 3-7 from where he shoots it from is not good. You also expect more than 3 rebounds out of him, but his three blocks were great. I liked the shot he took from three, even though he missed. We need him to take at least one of those a game.
Alex Poythress played okay. He defended very well, and finished well, but he was pretty quiet other than a couple of dunks, and two rebounds is too few for him.
Dakari Johnson only shot the ball one time. What’s up with that?
Tying it all up
This was a game that Kentucky needed to win by making short shots close to the basket, and hitting their free throws. 3-point shooting would’ve been a bonus, but what Kentucky really needed to do was be efficient in the paint. They weren’t, and thus the game wound up being uglier than the average 51 possession crawl.
Winning this game taught the Wildcats an important lesson about doing the little things on defense to spark the offense. Kentucky is used to getting a lot of shots, and when faced with a game where that wasn’t going to happen (it’s almost impossible to speed up a slow team that wants to play slow), they reacted as if it didn’t make any difference. It does. You have to play differently when faced with a low-possession game. Trying to speed somebody up is an exercise in futility unless you can unleash Pitino-esque press on them. UK really doesn’t have that.
The Wildcats do need to shoot the ball much better from the perimeter, but at times, the Wildcats offense looked much smoother last night than it has all year. I see progress, it’s just the little things, like missing layups, free throws, and easy shots that are holding the offense back. We won’t see any more teams that drag out possessions like the Lions do until the NCAA Tournament, but it’s good to have experience playing teams that force you to value possessions very highly. This was a good lesson for the Wildcats.