In 2011, I remember the feeling when the Kentucky Wildcats went on an unexpected run to the Final Four, getting past #1 seed Ohio State in a game somewhat reminiscent of this one. The difference is that in that 2011 game, Kentucky was very efficient offensively while the Buckeyes beat UK up on the boards. This game was a model of offensive efficiency by both the Wichita State Shockers and Kentucky, and the result was an aesthetically pleasing, exciting basketball game that gave both teams little to criticize.
Once again, at the outset, I want to offer my sincere congratulations to Wichita State on an outstanding contest. As before, I know there is no way to console a team, especially the seniors, who performed at such a high level for so long only to lose in a performance that would have been good enough to beat anyone else all year. It is not the proper role of the victorious opposition to do that anyway, but rather only to offer profound admiration for their effort and their fine team, and hope that they accept it as genuine and not contrived.
For Kentucky, this was a remarkable statistical game in that it produced a level of offensive efficiency the Wildcats have not seen since the Ole Miss game back on February 4th. In fact, Kentucky has matched or exceeded this level of offensive efficiency only 5 times all year, and only once this side of January. What a way, and what a time, to break out of a shooting slump.
Let's run down the numbers, shall we?
Wichita State box
|Fred Van Vleet||35||95||17||4||1-2||0-4||2-2||0||4||6||1||0||2||4|
Kentucky's defensive efficiency was understandably very poor. The reason was that the Shockers simply would not be denied, and shot the ball lights out from everywhere. 61% on 2-point baskets and 48% on 3-point baskets will win 99% of all games for you. Surprisingly, WSU only managed 67% from the line, the only place where their shooting was below average, and that's the one place defense didn't matter.
Some announcer or other said that UK was not dominant on the backboards. Whoever that was, and thankfully I don't remember who, was not just wrong, they were as wrong as if they suggested the sun revolves around the Earth. Kentucky secured 85% of all defensive rebounds — a gobsmacking, staggering efficiency. I can only assume it is because Gregg Marshall made a conscious decision that getting back in transition was more important than getting offensive rebounds.
Kentucky also rebounded 35% of their own misses, and combined with the DR number, it was a tour-de-force of rebounding. If there is any one stat WSU can point at and say, "That's why we lost," it is this one, and Kentucky the obverse.
I recommended in my pregame that Kentucky shoot the basketball well, and they did — spectacularly so. Almost 60% from inside the arc and 44% outside. Yet because the Wildcats could not stop WSU, that could have represented a loss if that last shot had fallen. Hard to believe.
73% free throw shooting will win you a lot of games, and honestly, this is the one stat I would point to as being the most significant, even though the rebounds were key. The Wildcats made an extremely high percentage late in the game to preserve the victory.
Kentucky's defense still runs away from open shooters at times. Calipari has got to fix it; you can't do that, ever. You never see good defensive teams do that. I know some of you will think I'm picking at nits, but honestly, this is embarrassing and is due to only one thing — a complete lack of communication with each other. It's going to get us beaten if it doesn't stop.
The Wildcats still lose people on switches. That should never happen — that's why you switch.
41% of baskets were assisted. We need to try to get that closer to 50%, that's what a good team's assist numbers look like. For example, WSU assisted on 52% of their made shots.
Turnovers were 18%. That's really marginal. 20% is the threshold that usually gets us beat. UK had eight turnovers at halftime, and three of those were simple steals near midcourt by WSU guards. There's no excuse for that, and Russ Smith and Chris Jones are even more disruptive. Kentucky must get a handle on the basketball and lose the habit passes instanter.
1.26 offensive efficiency is really great, and interestingly, it isn't our best of the season by quite a bit. Against Providence, a very good team, UK was clicking along at 1.31 points per possession. So there is room for improvement.
Kentucky had some really good defensive possessions, so I know they are capable, and I do give latitude for how hot WSU was — they were making challenged shots from everywhere, and no defense can stop that. But there were still too many breakdowns that led to easy baskets. You have to live with teams that can make well-defended shots, but you can't give up layups.
Getting Fred Van Vleet in foul trouble was a big key for UK. Kentucky went on a run every time he was out.
I love the confident way Kentucky is shooting the three now. The offense is much stronger when the Wildcats get good, open looks from three and make them.
Calipari backed off the "tweak" last night and went back to shot first. Good strategy. That has to be a game-to-game thing, and UK's guards had a big size advantage that Cal wanted to exploit, and it worked well. I predict we'll see the same thing against Louisville with their smaller guards, it's what Russ Smith meant when he called UK a "bad matchup" for Louisville. He was talking mostly about the twins.
Julius Randle gets the game ball for the most complete game he has played all season. His line is breathtaking, including six assists, a block, a steal and only one turnover. My one complaint is that I'd like to see him shoot it better — 50% from where he takes them is not great.
Aaron Harrison made some huge shots, but he didn't rebound well and turned the ball over way too much. But four made threes really helped.
Cleanthony Early's performance was easily one of the finest in this tournament or any other, and yet nobody will remember it outside the Shocker faithful. I'll never forget it, that's for sure. He was unstoppable, and James Young, Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle all took turns trying, to no avail.
Speaking of Young, he had a fantastic game. 13 points, three of five on threes and eight (!) rebounds with only one turnover. That turnover stat for him is truly noteworthy.
I found myself holding my breath every time Ron Baker touched the ball. He was that good.
Tekele Cotton had a quiet game. I credit Aaron Harrison's defense. In fact, both the twins played
Andrew Harrison had a remarkable game for being injured. The only reason he didn't get the game ball were the six turnovers, a stupidly horrible number when held up against only 3 assists. But he was an offensive beast, and WSU had no answer for him in the paint.
Willie Cauley-Stein had a good game. He and Andrew ran the prettiest pick and roll you'll ever see, but my only complaint is that they didn't do it more. WCS is often slow to attack the rim on P&R.
Dakari Johnson played okay, but he is still lacking some confidence and struggles against smaller, quicker post players. He also fails to exploit his size. UK really should go to him more when the defense allows the pass, but Kentucky is a poor post entry passing team. Two rebounds in twenty minutes is not enough.
Alex Poythress had a really good game. He made all his shots, got an amazing, athletic block and really added energy.
Jarrod Polson played well, and had a great 3-point look go all the way down and come out. He also managed an assist.
Tying it all up
Overall, this was a great offensive game for Kentucky against an undersized but highly proficient opponent. Kentucky made more than enough mistakes on defense to lose this game, but effort and toughness helped them through it. It was played at a high level offensively, but neither team could stop the other.
If the Wildcats could put this offense together with the Kansas State defense, this would be some kind of dominant team. Unfortunately, this young bunch can barely walk and chew gum, but they are definitely playing the game more as a team than they were coming into the post-season.
Pundits can be forgiven for seeing Kentucky having a bad game before the end and going down to a good squad like Louisville, but if the Wildcats continue to hit on all cylinders offensively, it's going to be hard to outscore them. WSU was as efficient as any opponent Kentucky has seen all year and it wasn't enough. If Kentucky can keep making shots and rebounding at this crazy efficiency, they have a good chance to get to the Final Four, and even beyond.
One final comment; I love the fight in this team. All year, no matter who or what the score, this Kentucky team has showed that they will not give up, or stop coming at you. That, combined with better offense, makes them a genuine threat to win it all.