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Kentucky Basketball: 3 Encouraging Trends for the Wildcats

The Virginia Tech win highlighted several emerging trends that suggest the Wildcats are on the rise.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Kentucky
PJ Washington’s improvement is one of the reasons we see the Cats on the rise
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

There were a lot of encouraging signs in Kentucky’s home court victory over Virginia Tech. The internet was excited about Kentucky’s display of three point shooting, its effective use of a full court press, and of course, Quade Green’s sunglasses.

But I don’t think we witnessed an isolated incident for the Cats, but rather some positive trends that are emerging as the season progresses. It is worth highlighting three encouraging signs noticed over the past month of Kentucky basketball that suggests that this team hasn’t reached its ceiling yet.

1) Efficiency in the Halfcourt Offense

There were some concerning trends surrounding the Wildcats’ offensive efficiency when both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Green shared the floor, particularly in the later stages of the shot clock. Kentucky’s offense managed just 0.81 points per possession (PPP) when settling into a halfcourt set (10 seconds into the shot clock) when I last checked in on this issue at the beginning of December. But over the last month of the season (last five games against Fort Wayne, UIC, Harvard, Monmouth, and Virginia Tech), Gilgeous-Alexander and Green have completely changed course as you can see from the figure below.

Offensive efficiency with both Gilgeous-Alexander and Green in the lineup at the same time (last five games — Fort Wayne, UIC, Harvard, Monmouth, and Virginia Tech)

The dynamic backcourt has maintained a steady 1.18 PPP in transition and early offense, but the Wildcat offense has put up an incredible 1.38 PPP with under 20 seconds remaining in the shot clock with SGA and Green in the backcourt. Most notably, putting two point guards in the lineup at the same time has reduced the Wildcats turnover percentage to a more manageable 16 percent. This is an exciting trend to keep an eye on as the season progresses, and one that seemed to be a serious concern just one month ago.

2) PJ Washington’s Interior Passing

In their newsletter, Hoops Insight noticed the great passing of both PJ Washington and Hamidou Diallo, pointing out that both players had the highest assist rates of any non-point guard in the John Calipari era. I took note, and watched Washington’s passing against Virginia Tech. The big guy doled out 5 assists when he wasn’t knocking down three point shots and working his way to the foul line. I looked back through the KenPom archives to determine he is one of only 5 Calipari big men to have an assist rate of over 10 percent.

Calipari big men who were also good passers

Washington is in good company if this positive trend continues. Kentucky’s offense benefits from improved spacing when Washington can step out and knock down an open jumper, and if he continues to be a threat to find the open cutter and can reduce costly turnovers, Washington will continue to rise up NBA draft boards.

3) Kevin Knox Bounced Back

Everybody struggles. Kevin Knox had become too reliant on jump shooting opportunities and he had a 1 for 9 shooting night against Monmouth to prove it. Knox bounced back in a big way though against Virginia Tech, scoring 21 points. But it was how he scored those points that mattered more for me. He took opponents off the dribble, he posted up, and he was aggressive enough to draw fouls and go to the free throw line. Knox is a 71 percent free throw shooter, but draws just 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes (according to KenPom). As Knox continues to vary his scoring opportunities and focus less on catch and shoot opportunities, I think Kentucky will rely more heavily on Knox as its go to scorer.

All three of these trends are worth monitoring as the season progresses, and if they continue, the Kentucky we knew from November will be hardly recognizable in March.