Every point in college basketball counts the same. A two-point jump shot in the opening moments of the game counts the same as a layup as time expires. However, we all know that we tend to place a larger emphasis on how players perform in crucial moments down the stretch in close games. And the young Kentucky Wildcats have had more than a few close games down the stretch.
One of the big questions right now about the Wildcats is who is the go to guy? Who will the Wildcats count on when they need a bucket in a pivotal moment in the clutch? Who is the dude for this team?
Some trends are starting to emerge about who Kentucky and coach John Calipari will turn to in these moments. I am defining a clutch moment as a possession in a game where the score was within five points in the last five minutes of the game. In other words, the following statistics are an examination of only the possessions in the last five minutes of regulation, for each game where the score was within five points, so that we can begin to analyze who pulls through in big moments.
I chose to analyze games within a five point margin at any point during the last five minutes to assess games where the Wildcats pulled away late in a close game or conversely where they struggled in the closing minutes and lost by a margin larger than five. So the final score of the games I analyzed may not be within five points or less, but were at some point in the final five minutes of the game before either team pulled away.
Kentucky has played in nine games this season in which the score was within five points in the last five minutes of the game. The Cats are 6-3 in close games, beating Vermont, Virginia Tech, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, and Vandy. UK lost to Kansas, UCLA, and most recently South Carolina.
First, who does Calipari have on the court in these moments? The most common lineup is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel, and PJ Washington. Cal does not seem to trust Nick Richards in close moments, as evidenced by his four and a half minutes of play out of a possible 45 minutes. Even though Quade Green’s minutes have been affected by his back injury which has sidelined him for the past several games, Calipari seems to favor Gilgeous-Alexander in close game situations and it’s hard to argue with that decision.
In terms of production, I was perhaps most intrigued by PJ Washington’s statline. Washington has been a strong performer, leading the way in rebounds and assists. According to sports-reference.com, he averages 15.9 points per 40 minutes on the season, but according to my numbers he jumps up to 21.5 points/40 in the clutch. He’s also responsible for more than 21 percent of Kentucky’s points in close games. Washington seems to relish in big moments. However, his free throw percentage and his turnovers continue to be an issue. He’s getting to the charity stripe at an incredible rate, but he has to find a way to convert with the game on the line.
A couple of other interesting tidbits emerged from these numbers. If there is such thing as a go to guy for the Cats, I think it has to be Knox. Knox has the most minutes, field goal attempts, and points in clutch moments. He has gotten to the free throw line often, where he is converting at a 73 percent clip. I would only want to see his three point accuracy improve, as he is 1 of 7 from beyond the arc. Diallo’s numbers are a bit disappointing. His points/40 numbers are almost exactly in line with his season averages, but he is 3 of 11 from the free throw line and that is inexcusable in big moments.
The Wildcats have been involved with five close games so far in conference play, and with the strength of the SEC this season I only imagine that will continue. Knox is clearly a go to guy in pressure situations, but Washington and Gilgeous-Alexander are emerging as threats to take over in clutch situations as well. And where does Jarred Vanderbilt fit into this? What do you think, BBN? What jumps out at you about the Wildcats’ performance when the game is on the line?