Validation is very important to a determination of whether or not a team has returned to playing well after a performance dip, and yesterday we had just that. Many people saw the Missouri Tigers game as more the failure of a young team to fire in a hostile arena as the biggest reason for the margin, but Kentucky proved yesterday that it wasn’t as much about Missouri as it was about them. By comfortably defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide on the road, the Wildcats have fully returned to pre-conference form.
Alabama is a deep, talented team that has repeatedly played good teams tough both at home and on the road, and beaten a few. Yesterday, they did not shoot the ball well from the perimeter but were surprisingly successful inside the arc, percentage wise. But Kentucky was far more successful, and the Tide simply couldn’t overcome the greater skill of Kentucky with determined effort. I still think the Tide can be an NCAA Tournament team, but they have a very tough near-term road to earn that spot. We wish them the best going forward.
An eFG% of near 60 tells the tale of this game. Very few teams with that kind of shooting lose. Notice also that Alabama shot a decent percentage, particularly from 2-point range.
The combined effect of offensive rebounding and turnovers prevented Alabama from having a real chance in this game. 27% turnovers alone is a lot to overcome, but letting UK get almost 46% of their misses really makes them efficient.
Speaking of efficiency, the Wildcats have had back-to-back 1.30+ points per possession efficiency marks, this most recent one against the third most efficient defense in the SEC at home. That is a very impressive statistic.
This was a low-possession game at only 54 possessions. That’s typical Alabama pace for the past, not for this present team. But it’s always a good strategy to shorten the game against Kentucky if you can.
Kentucky’s zone offense looked much smoother this game. the Wildcats were able to penetrate the Alabama zone from the wings, and the Tide were uncomfortable helping from the top, fearing the Wildcats’ 3-point shooters. That produced a lot of good post looks, which Kentucky made at a fair percentage.
The Wildcats also worked the 2-man game a lot with a post entry and a corner cut, which produced several good 3-point looks. They also used the pick and roll effectively against the Alabama zone, something that has mostly eluded them. Consider this sequence:
Tyler Ulis gets the ball up top. Dakari screens his defender. Marcus Lee makes a baseline cut to the right block
Dakari rolls to the basket, Ulis passes to Lee on the baseline, who could take the shot. But instead:
He hits a cutting Dakari with a touch pass. The result:
This was an example of how Kentucky was able to defeat the Alabama zone. This works because Dakari’s defender looses sight of him and doesn’t recover in time. This would go down as a classic "hockey assist" for Tyler Ulis.
The reason Kentucky was so successful is that Alabama could not pack that zone down inside the 3-point line and clog the paint. Kentucky has now become a very dangerous 3-point shooting team, and you must respect their perimeter guys and stay home in a zone, or surrender open 3-point shots. Alabama’s zone was very spread out by good Kentucky floor spacing, requiring help to come from a long way away.
Kentucky’s free throw rate has really been on the improve the last few games. They are attacking the rim more, but are still shooting a bit too many threes. Yesterday, UK took almost 37% 3-point shots, significantly over their season average. They made them, and most of them were really good looks, but the Wildcats should be taking about 30% 3-point shots, even against a zone.
Kentucky’s 3-point defense was solid. A couple of the made shots by Alabama were strongly challenged, and most of Alabama’s threes were not great looks. That says a lot about the defense.
Around 10% steals for this team is a constant. Kentucky didn’t block many shots against the Tide.
If I have a criticism, it is that Kentucky’s interior defense was not as good as it usually is. The Crimson Tide shot almost 56% from 2-point range.
A case can be made for 3 or 4 players for game ball, but I think this one has to go to Devin Booker. His line was outstanding, and the assists put him over the top.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Tyler Ulis get honorable mentions. They both played great, and I really love the confidence Willie is developing in his jump shot. Ulis did a great job running the team, and he was deadly from distance when they left him alone out there.
Dakari shot a solid percentage, rebounded well, had a couple of assists and made most of his free throws.
Andrew Harrison had a fine game. He missed a layup and had one more turnover than the other guys, but he didn’t shoot a lot and defended very well. He had three steals to top it off.
Aaron had a quiet game that looks remarkably like his brother’s, other than the steals. He also played very well on defense, I thought, and was unselfish. He had several open looks he passed up to get better ones, looks he would’ve taken two games ago.
I thought Karl-Anthony Towns was fairly ineffective in this game. He didn’t shoot well, and he’s still having trouble losing the ball inside. As a result, he only got 14 minutes, a low number for him this season.
Trey Lyles played well. He shot a high percentage and hit the glass as well as anyone. He is proving to be a big match-up problem for teams.
I thought Marcus Lee played really well, but Calipari pulled him in the second half for declining a wide-open free throw jumper in the middle of the zone, the shot that Kentucky must always take. But his touch pass to Dakari (see above) was a thing of beauty, and for that play, and others, he got quite a bit of time.
Derek Willis played five minutes and got a rebound and a steal, but made two turnovers. I think he needs to work harder in practice to get more time. That’s the vibe I’m getting from Coach Cal.
Tying it all up
Overall, this was one of the more complete games Kentucky has played, and offensively it was in their top two. The Wildcats shot the ball pretty well from everywhere, moved the ball well, and mostly did all the things they need to do to win games on the road. Perhaps the most impressive thing against Alabama’s defense was how well Kentucky moved the ball into the post from the wing. It’s very important to keep that from happening in a zone, because against a team like Kentucky, the help has to come from somewhere. Alabama tried to help from the top, freeing up UK’s 3-point shooters for open looks, which they made.
Also impressive about this win was the confidence with which the team played on the road in a sold-out, hostile arena. If the freshmen are going to quail, this is exactly the type of environment where that would happen. It didn’t happen yesterday. In fact, the freshmen, for the most part, competed like upperclassmen, which is a big part of why the Wildcats were so successful.
Another notable thing was the lack of "platooning" (drink) in this game. Calipari basically used sets of substitutions, but did not stick with a particular rotation that I could detect. The minutes were pretty close, so the assistants must’ve been helping him to make sure that the substitutions were consistent. Those hoping for Derek Willis to take the spot of Dominique Hawkins were disappointed, as I suspected they would be. The vibe from Coach Cal is supportive but not "get him in the game more" supportive. I think Willis is not impressing in practice, and may be making repeated mistakes without significant improvement there. You have to practice well to play for Coach Cal. We have seen that time and again.
Kentucky’s next game is against the Vanderbilt Commodores, and fortunately, it is in Rupp Arena rather than the infinitely more difficult Memorial Gym in Nashville. As another side note, Kentucky has once again taken over the #1 spot in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and by a substantially larger margin than Virginia had. As before, that has quite a bit to do with how Kentucky and Virginia’s opponents played yesterday. Ole Miss validated their performance at Kentucky be beating Arkansas in Bud Walton Arena, a very difficult feat. Also Texas A&M knocked off LSU on the road.