One of the things I like to do after a game that evokes a lot of emotion is to try to disconnect the analysis from the emotion. That’s usually best accomplished by letting the subject percolate overnight, and try to come back with a rational rather than emotional reaction. I think that approach will serve us well in yesterday’s Texas A&M - Kentucky game.
A lot of my initial thoughts in this game were challenged by the statistics. The problem is that the stats are a bit deceptive in this particular game, as I think you’ll see, but they do lend an additional perspective that is probably absent from our collective initial impression of the game. I came away thinking Kentucky had played putridly on the defensive end, but the statistics tell us that the Aggies only managed 0.83 points/possession, right in line with what we would expect Kentucky to hold them to. So the stats challenge us to re-evaluate our perception to figure out why it feels conflicted. But more on that in a bit.
First, though, we need to address A&M. The Aggies played very hard, and sometimes well. They hung with Kentucky in every statistical category but one, but they really played pretty much the same game they have played all year against better competition. TAMU is not a very good offensive team, but they are a good defensive one. So to congratulate them for playing particularly well doesn’t seem right, but I feel very comfortable praising their effort and intensity. In particular, their big people showed up very well against the Wildcats considering Kentucky’s dominating size.
Whereas the Ole Miss game was understandable due to hot players, this performance was simply a grind-it-out game where Kentucky played notably poorly on the offensive end. When you hold your opponent to 0.83 points per possession, you should win that game by double-digits when you have nine McDonalds All-Americans on your squad. That didn’t happen, and the offense was why. Why the offense was that way can be explained by two pieces of data; very poor shooting inside, and way too many 3-point attempts.
Let’s get to the numbers:
Texas A&M box
As you can see from the Four Factors above, neither team shot the ball well at all. In Kentucky’s case, it had more to do with shot selection. In TAMU’s case, it had a lot to do with Kentucky’s size. TAMU got better shots, but they were mostly challenged strongly. The fact that they got better shots, though, is a problem.
Once again, we see Kentucky making an inordinate number of threes in a game which they barely won. I don’t think that’s related, but it is interesting.
As in the Ole Miss game, free throws arguably saved the Wildcats from defeat. This is among the highest FTR games Kentucky has played all season, and it’s notable because it was on the road, where you would expect the whistle to be more friendly for the home team, and overall I think it was marginally so.
Once again, this was a low-turnover game. That’s good, but Kentucky has to force more turnovers than they did in this one. To be fair, TAMU has very good point guards when it comes to ball handling.
Kentucky shot the ball fairly well from the line. I came away from the game thinking UK shot poorly, but 71% is plenty good enough for a team like this.
You cannot be happy about Kentucky’s defensive rebounding. 67% is good for most teams, but UK should be well over 75% on the DR component.
Assists are still very consistent and high. This is something to be happy about.
3-point shooting was not good, although it was not horrible either. The problem was not the percentage so much as the volume. Kentucky should be getting way more, and way better, looks that 21-footers.
Offensive rebounding wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. 32% is roughly the floor for an acceptable performance by UK in this statistic.
2-point field goal shooting was loathsome. How can a team as big and talented as Kentucky miss 75% of their 2-point shots? It simply beggars belief.
I think the game ball has to go to Devin Booker. Without his shooting, Kentucky loses this game. Also, he did other things, like getting some rebounds, an assist and a steal. Defensively, I thought he was a little up and down, but overall he was no worse than the rest.
Aaron Harrison was a combined 4-20, and that’s not good. He did rebound well, getting 7 rebounds and he made 3 steals. Still, Aaron is a shooting guard, and shooting 20% is not the hallmark of a good shooting guard. He also fouled out to add insult to injury.
Andrew had 5 assists and only 1 turnover and 1 steal. If he had shot the ball better, I’d say he had a good game, but 2-10 is just not good enough. He even blew two dead-bang layups, one near the end of regulation that could’ve put Kentucky up 4 and possibly put the game out of reach with only 23 seconds left.
Trey Lyles gets honorable mention for the game ball. He only made 2 shots, but he had 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. He made a huge 16-foot shot late in the game that was critical to the victory. He also arguably preserved the game by making two critical free throws with 6 seconds left in the first overtime to tie the game.
Willie Cauley-Stein did not have a good game, and fouled out. He had 3 blocks, but he was a non-factor offensively and simply didn’t do the kind of things he normally does.
Karl-Anthony Towns rebounded the ball well. He missed several close-in shots that he should’ve made, but he made all but one of his free throws, had nine rebounds and an assist. Five turnovers and a disqualification on fouls marred his otherwise decent game.
Tyler Ulis played fine, but he missed every shot he took up until a huge 3-pointer in overtime to give Kentucky the lead for good. He also had 3 assists and a steal.
Dakari Johnson missed 4 of 5 shots, all layups. But he rebounded the basketball very well with 9, and made his free throws — 6-8. Overall, I’d say he did fine, but the problem he had scoring inside is cause for worry, and it is a recurring problem with him.
Marcus Lee played pretty well defensively, but he didn’t rebound well and didn’t score.
Tying it all up
I came away feeling that Kentucky had played their worst game of the season in this one. After reviewing the stats, and looking at some of the replay, I still feel that way to some extent, but moreso about the offense. The defense was not as dominant as we might have expected, but it was effective. The worst thing about the defense was in transition, but when Kentucky got set up in the half-court, they were pretty good.
There were four big problems that I saw; Kentucky’s pick & roll defense, the Wildcats’ lack of blocking out, transition defense, and zone offense. At some point in the game, all these things were problematic. But the biggest problem of all was not the defense, but the offense. Kentucky simply didn’t score well. Consider this: if the Wildcats had only reached their average points/possession output, the final score would’ve been something like 68-50 in regulation. Instead, they made Texas A&M, a solid but hardly exceptional defensive team look much better than they are.
The defensive problems were relatively minor. The biggest problems were zone offense and rebounding. Those are two things that Calipari has to focus on between now and Tuesday, when we welcome the Missouri Tigers to Rupp Arena.
When Kentucky faces a zone defense, they repeatedly run high picks for the guards. This produces open looks from three, but the Wildcats really need to work harder to get closer looks than that. When the Wildcats run the zone offense correctly, as it did in the second overtime, they would get the ball to a shooter, in this case Trey Lyles, right in between the guards at the foul line. UK did it twice in succession in the final overtime, and both of them resulted in baskets, one with a pass from Lyles to Dakari and the second with a 16-foot Lyles jumper.
Kentucky really should run that action to exhaustion. If they want to use pick-and-pop action to get Lyles or Towns the ball at the free throw line, fine, but don’t dribble into the heart of the zone, because that collapses the defense and makes proper offensive spacing impossible — you wind up throwing the ball around in traffic. Also, just throwing the ball around the zone perimeter looking for a post-up is not a good way to attack, because the post gets instantly double-teamed. The best outcome from that action is an open three, but you can get that almost anytime against a zone.
Kentucky must lose their fascination with the three ball against the zone. It’s difficult, because you get open looks and the zone beguiles you to take them, but when you do, you’re rolling the dice. Yes, you can shoot teams out of them sometimes, but when you don’t, it makes getting separation difficult. Attacking the zone with the pass into the soft middle will get you much better looks than screens at the top, either from two or from three. Kentucky has also underutilized their quality midrange shooters — you don’t want to take too many midrange shots, but against the zone, the threat of them can be your best friend. Make one or two, and you’ll see coaches switch back to man.
Also, there were a number of extra passes that were missed. when you get the ball in the post, you always want to look for the basket cut, and Kentucky wasn’t doing that. The post guys were working too hard to score one-on-one when dunks were available with a simple extra pass.
In summary, after further review, the defense Kentucky played really wasn’t that bad, although it was certainly not as good as we’ve seen. What was bad was the offense, and mostly because of shot selection and rebound positioning. We'll hope to see better against the young Missouri Tigers next week, and let's all hope that the Wildcats won't need overtime to win this one.