The difference between winning and losing often comes down to some small things. What we have noticed, though, is that the Kentucky Wildcats have gotten this far primarily on the strength of offensive improvement. Early in the season, we talked about the Wildcats' offense and how productive it was. Now, we want to look at the difference between the worst part of the season — that stretch of seven games beginning with the Florida Gators in Rupp Arena and ending with Florida down in Gainesville. Note that all offensive efficiency numbers are courtesy of Kenpom.com.
The dashed line is the Division I average. The green line is the trend. As you can clearly see, the Wildcats were not just playing badly at the end of the season, they were getting worse as the season wore on. I dubbed the offense the "Dribble Drive, Fling, and Hope," and it got uglier and uglier. It's no real surprise so many people abandoned all hope at this point — when I look at this chart, I wonder why I didn't also. Well, not really, but it does look really grim — this was the #1 team in America at the beginning of the season, and their offense had sunk well below the Division I average offense.
Now, let's look at the offense in the post-season:
Whoa, now there is a turnaround. Not only is Kentucky's OE now better than the Division I average, it's on an upward trend, and a very nice one, too. So what has caused this? Take a look at these three charts:
Kentucky is shooting it better across the board. As you can see, the 3-point shooting has dramatically improved. In fact, that percentage has been on the improve since the middle of the SEC season around the game at Auburn. the Auburn game, Kentucky has been shooting, on average, 35.5% from the arc, and 41% since the Florida game in Rupp Arena. So contra some other stories you might read, the 3-point shooting has been improving for a good while now, it is not just a tournament phenomenon.
It's important to point out that Kentucky's defensive efficiency has become significantly worse. In this chart, higher is worse and lower is better:
The threshold (dashed) line, again, is the Division I average. This has been primarily driven by two very strong offensive opponents — the Wichita State Shockers and Michigan Wolverines. Michigan's season OE average for the season was tops in Division I, and Wichita State's was #7. As we prepare to face the Wisconsin Badgers, we'll note that they are, similar to WSU and Michigan, a very powerful offensive team, #4 in the nation.
So as we prepare for Wisconsin, we need to understand why Kentucky has been winning, and they have been doing so on the strength of their improved offense. The defense UK is putting up right now has just not been very good, but the offense has been so good and the timeliness of some of the shooting, particularly that of Aaron Harrison, has been deadly to our foes.
But before I let it go at that, I want to point out that the shooting improvement from the perimeter seems to be both a function of experience and improved team play resulting in better shots, in rhythm, rather than the last-second and "settled" shooting we had seen from Kentucky earlier in the season. So my thinking is that the improvement is driven not only by the team getting more comfortable taking the shots, but the better positions they are taking them from, and taking them from within the offense rather than as a last resort or at the first open look.
Obviously, this doesn't have to continue if Kentucky improves its defense, but the Wildcats have been suspect, if not terrible, on defense all season. Every now and again we'll see a really good defensive game, but it tends to be against a team that is offensively challenged. This is another big difference between the last two Kentucky teams to achieve the Final Four — 2011 had a defensive efficiency of 92.0 and 2012 had a DE of 89.9 at season's end.