The pre-conference portion of the Kentucky Wildcats’ 2014-15 season is our next step on the review of last season, and perhaps the most significant non-conference season in recent Kentucky memory. Expectations coming off the two exhibition games against the Pikeville Bears and Georgegown Tigers were predictably sky high, but also typically guarded. That guardedness would end very early in the 2014 November calendar.
Of course, as usual, Kentucky started out with some easy games, or at least, against teams that were not traditional powerhouses. Having seen a somewhat less powerful team versus professionals and national teams a few months before, Kentucky fans were anxious to see what time, and the addition of Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles had wrought in terms of the team. It didn’t take long to find out.
From the Grand Canyon postmortem:
What Kentucky did well was defend. What they did not do well was run efficient offense. Despite some of the lopsided numbers you’ll see below, this game saw Kentucky play well below par in a number of areas, considering the competition.
From game one, we saw the team character materialize, although we didn’t then recognize it or at least, were unwilling to commit to ascribing it after only one game against a lesser foe. All year, Kentucky would be defensively efficient and offensively less so. In this game it didn’t matter, but it would show itself later on.
Against Buffalo, the Wildcats were actually down five points at the half. Needless to say, this was… disturbing, and I reacted strongly in the 2nd half game thread:
That was an inferior first half of basketball by a team that has absolutely no excuses for putting it out there. Not only did the Wildcats miss shots, they turned the ball over with wild abandon, as if it were a good thing, and looked really bad doing it. It was a first half played with absolutely zero heart and, and describing it as listless and brain-dead is a very mild criticism.
Kentucky went on to win comfortably by dominating the 2nd half, holding Buffalo to nine points in the first 10 minutes and only 14 for the entire half.
Kentucky handled their first two opponents with dispatch, if not remarkable offensive efficiency. Consider the numbers:
These would be the kind of games we’d all have to get used to.
Kansas was the first big test for the Wildcats, then ranked #1 in the nation against the #5 Kansas Jayhawks. It turned out to be a washout. Kentucky held mighty Kansas on a neutral floor to the same offensive efficiency as Grand Canyon in Rupp Arena. It was at that point that Kentucky was suddenly a dominant, fearful team.
That particular postmortem was a lot of fun to write. Consider:
Well, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, last night was quite a night. Not only did the Kentucky Wildcats defeat the Kansas Jayhawks, they did so in a way that astonished all of college basketball, and I do mean all. Even blueblood opponents like Duke were aghast, and even Louisville Cardinal fans offered grudging praise for the demonstration of talent and basketball prowess. It was, in a word, gobsmacking. People aren’t quite over it yet, and are reduced to reassuring us that UK couldn’t beat an NBA team. Fortunately, we don’t have any NBA teams on our schedule, so I guess I can live with that.
What can you say? That was one of the most devastating examples blueblood-on-blueblood violence that I can remember, and it wasn’t as if Kansas was down on talent — they were just profoundly overmatched.
After Kansas, Kentucky played several lesser opponents — Boston University, Montana State, and Texas-Arlington before running into another quality Division I program in the Providence Friars. Those first three games looked like this from an efficiency standpoint:
Kentucky began an upward trend in offensive efficiency at this point in the season, mainly due to their getting used to playing with each other and Devin Booker finally began to make the 3-pointers he had missed so often in earlier games and especially in the Big Blue Bahamas.
Kentucky went on defeat Providence convincingly in a low-possession, ugly affair that saw the Wildcats seriously challenged on the glass. This would become a trend throughout the season that seemed to hold Kentucky back from realizing some of their great potential. From the postmortem:
The 1.07 points/ possession offensive efficiency is tied for Kentucky’s worst all season — with the game against the Buffalo Bulls. It’s interesting how those two games mirror each other, with the opponent close or ahead at the half and getting held to sub-20 point halves in the second.
On this point, Kentucky really needs to improve its offensive efficiency. From where this team takes most of it’s shots, effective field goal percentages of sub-50% are, if not quite alarming, certainly frustrating.
The Texas contest was thought to be a huge test for Kentucky, even in Rupp Arena, and a good part of the contest was competitive. But after going into the half tied with the Longhorns, the Wildcats once again came out and exerted their will defensively, holding Texas to only 25 points in the second half and winning comfortably by 12 points. Part of that was due to the loss of starting point guard Isaiah Taylor to injury before the game, but even when Taylor came back, they rarely managed to play as well as they did against Kentucky for the rest of the season.
It was at this point that the offensive efficiency struggles began to worry:
Kentucky was an offensive mess all night, and I have never seen the like of struggles shooting the ball. Kentucky didn’t make their first three until late in the second half, and went 1-12 in the game. I warned you in the game thread that if Kentucky struggled from three, this game would be close.
Kentucky easily dispatched the Eastern Kentucky Colonels in an up-and-down affair, then once again ran into trouble against a slow-playing Columbia team. In that game, Columbia’s deliberate execution produced one of the best offensive efficiencies all season against Kentucky, 0.90, compared to UK’s unimpressive 1.10. From the postmortem:
Many people will see Kentucky’s struggles as one of 3-point shooting, lack of defensive intensity, or poor ball movement. All those were factors at times, but the over-arching problem for Kentucky last night was missing short shots next to the basket. Another big problem, efficiency-wise, was free-throw shooting, which was the worst in a while.
What was most frustrating about this particular game was that Columbia would get out to a 14-3 lead and held it until 13:18 remaining in the game. Kentucky would eventually take the lead and then gradually expand their advantage, but could never run away and hide. In the end, though, this was just a blip on the proverbial radar.
North Carolina, UCLA
When the North Carolina Tar Heels came to town on the heels of the poor Columbia performance, many in the Big Blue Nation were wringing their hands a bit, not only from the performance against Columbia, but Alex Poythress had just torn is anterior cruciate ligament on December 12th and this was the first game that the Wildcats would play without the former starter.
If Kentucky couldn’t improve on the Columbia performance, there was a good chance they’d be in for a rough go of it, even though at the time North Carolina was very up and down, having lost to Butler at a neutral site and Iowa at home.
As it turned out, Kentucky won this game in the first half by shooting a blistering percentage from the arc and forcing 18% steals, resulting in many easy baskets and open shots. In this game, North Carolina outrebounded Kentucky, just as Texas had, allowing them to win the 2nd half by 1 point. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, they lost the first stanza by 15. But North Carolina showed that you could score on the Wildcats, and produced the best offensive efficiency of any opponent to date against them.
After getting past the Tar Heels, Kentucky’s next opponent was the only basketball program in America with more NCAA Tournament championships than the Wildcats — the UCLA Bruins. The game was played in Chicago’s United Center, and although the Bruins had lost three games to that point (Oklahoma, North Carolina and Gonzaga), they were still reckoned a dangerous matchup.
The game turned out to be a slaughter. Kentucky not only took the proud UCLA program to the woodshed, they held the Bruins scorless for 12:40, and allowed them only 7 points at the half. Leading 41-7 at half, Kentucky so thoroughly dominated UCLA that the game was statistically over with 17:19 left. From the postmortem:
I am not sure that any team in America would’ve fared better than UCLA did today, to be honest. The first half was the most focused and intense I have seen this basketball team, and when you combine that with their prodigious length and notable talent, you get embarrassing halves of basketball for our opponents. That’s what happened today, made uglier by UCLA’s poor play.
As has usually been the case in the last couple of years, Louisville was the final non-conference contest for Kentucky in 2014, and Kentucky’s 2nd ranked opponent in three games. Kentucky came into the KFC Yum! Center having played zero true road games and only one game on a neutral site, Kansas. The #4 Cardinals were considered by virtually everyone to be Kentucky’s most difficult test to date, and as it turned out, they were.
Kentucky-Louisville was fought 31:30 seconds within about a 4-point spread. Early in the second half, Kentucky would surge to an 8-point lead, but Louisville would score six straight without a Big Blue answer to pull back within a single basket.
Kentucky continuted to surge and fall back until, with just over 7 minutes remaining, the Wildcats would gradually pull away to a 58-50 victory. It was a combination of Kentucky’s outstanding defensive play and the fact that Louisville was a scoring-challenged team all season that led to Kentucky’s third straight win over their bitter rivals. With this victory, the Wildcats moved to 8-1 over Louisville since 2010.
Two observations from the post-game thread seem particularly pithy, both in the context of the game, but for the future of it.
There was a lot of contact allowed to go. That’s all I’m going to say about the officiating. Kentucky has to learn to play through it, and I’m sure Coach Cal would like to buy them a beer. [Editor’s note: The "buy them a beer" remark was for testing the physical resilience of the team, not cheering the contact allowed]
and JLeverenz from the comments:
This game reminded me of pretty much every (regular season) UK-UL game in the last 4-5 years.
1st half: Cats look like they’re playing way too fast and can’t do anything right offensively. 2nd half: They calm down and slowly take control of the game.
There was also this, which cannot be seen too many times, and this home-made version will leave you in stitches (It did me, anyway):
Four factors and game flow (hat tip: Statsheet.com)
Louisville held Kentucky to their second-lowest offensive efficiency of the season, only slightly better than Texas’ 0.94 points/possession.
Wrapping up the non-conference
With victories over four ranked opponents and six teams in the Ken Pomeroy top 50 during the pre-conference season as well as getting through the entire thing unscathed, Kentucky set themselves up for what would be a historic run all the way to the Final Four.
The main concerns heading into the conference season, at this point, were:
- Turnovers: Kentucky was turning the ball over a bit too much at this point — 18%.
- 3-point shooting: The Wildcats were at 32% and averaging just about 5.5 3-point makes per game. Despite the occasional Devin Booker outbursts, 3-point shooting would be a minor concern for the rest of the season.
- Free throw shooting: At this point, Kentucky was averaging 66% at the line, a tenuous and uncomfortable spot. This would significantly improve by year's end.
- Defensive rebounding: Kentucky would allow too many teams to get extra shots at the rim via offensive rebounds. This one stat would consistently trouble the Wildcats for the rest of the season.
In our next installment this weekend, we’ll look at the conference season.