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Kentucky Basketball: How Worried Should We Be About Early Season Struggles?

Kentucky fans have been on a roller coaster ride of emotion since the Wisconsin loss in April. Are there reasons to worry and panic at this point of the season?

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to overreact to any regular season loss in the long college basketball season, but some defeats just feel more important than others.

The loss on December 3 to UCLA was Kentucky's first loss during the regular season since March 8, 2014 to No. 1 Florida.  UCLA has since gone on the road and defeated a ranked Gonzaga team.

It’s panic time in Lexington, right?  No, it's a little early to panic, but there are legitimate reasons for concern after ten games.

The Wildcats have suffered much more devastating early non-conference setbacks in Calipari's tenure – by 17 points to Connecticut in Maui in 2010, by 1 point to Indiana in 2011, and by 5 to Baylor in Dallas in 2014 – and managed to bounce back from all three to make at least the Final Four.

They have even more time than usual to work out their problems this season because of the SEC’s 18-game league schedule. First, though, they have to figure out what those problems are.

Kentucky isn't lacking talent, and talent has never really been the problem. It certainly wasn't in Los Angeles.  No, it has been offensive woes and the disappearance of Skal Labissière.

Despite being 6th in the country in offensive rebounding and 12th in points per possession, the team is 331st in 3-point percentage and 204th in free throw percentage. The latter two statistics have very well determined a team's ability to navigate the bracket in March and April.  The last ten NCAA Champions have averaged above 35% from 3 and over 69% from the free throw line.  Sure, there are outliers, but generally teams that cannot shoot or score from the free throw have a hard time in the Tournament.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic in regards to shooting is that Isaiah Briscoe is shooting under 40% from the free throw line.  If he were shooting 65%+, like he's capable of, he would be averaging over 18 points per game.  As we saw with the 2011-12 team, free throws can and will improve dramatically over the long season.

Skal's 0 point-0 rebound performance against Arizona State on Saturday is a far cry from the troubling statistics that have been documented in the first ten games. Skal has played in only 54% of the total minutes played this season while averaging 10.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. For comparison's sake, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee both are playing in 54% and 54.2% respectively while averaging 18.1 points and 14 rebounds combined.

There seems to be some apprehension from Kentucky fans due to this team's inability to blow the overmatched teams out.  My comment to that would be that not every team will be able to do what last year's team was able to do.  We must look to the 2009-10 team or even the 2013-14 team as evidence that there may be "close" games with inferior opponents, but once the team clicks they will be really good.  And I say "close" in jest because in the 9 wins this team has not had one game in single digits.

One thing I feel really good about with this team is their ability to play defense.  Kentucky currently ranked 9th in the country in points per 100 possessions at 91.2.  Translation: on average, there are 70.4 possessions per game and UK is only allowing 64 points per game.

There have been moments where some of the players have gotten beat off the dribble (which will happen), but overall the defense has been solid.  Kentucky is 22nd in the country in opponents 3-point% and 3rd in opponents assists to field goals made.

What that means is UK does not allow teams to beat them from three and are making opponents beat them one-on--one rather than ball movement.  In fact, 21% of opponent's points are coming from 3, which ranked 11th best in the country.  These are great statistics for any team playing in the NCAA Tournament, especially a team with a lot of raw talent like Kentucky.

Going forward into SEC play, Kentucky plays seven teams (Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, and Tennessee) that are ranked 100th or worse in points per 100 possessions.  There will be plenty of opportunities for this team to find their shot and for Skal to gain confidence.

There is no real objective reason for Kentucky fans to worry or panic at this point in the season.  The only reason fans are worrying is because of last year's success and the overzealous nature of our fan base that wants to beat every team Kentucky plays by 20 points.  As 2014 taught us, when March rolls around, Calipari will have his guys ready to play, no matter the record.  In Cal we trust.