Remember the Bahamas trip this summer? The Kentucky Wildcats looked like absolute world-beaters, demolishing international professional teams. They defended. They made shots. They had fun.
Watching them play so far this season has been the exact opposite. The defense has really struggled, shooting has been shaky at best, and it does not look like anyone is having fun. It is apparent that something has to change.
During his call-in show on Monday, Coach John Calipari went back to his buzz-word well and talked about some “tweaks” he is making to the way this team plays.
Now, we all know that coaches tweak strategies and plays all the time. But since “The Tweak” that took Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, and others to the Final Four in 2014, Big Blue Nation equates that term to a basketball miracle.
Realistically, what adjustments could Calipari and his staff be making that would make an actual difference on the court? I have a few ideas.
In case all of you Basketball Bennies out there did not watch the Wildcats in the 2014 season, the infamous tweak was basically a spacing adjustment. Calipari had his guys spread the court a little more to allow Andrew Harrison more space to drive and make decisions. That gave his brother more room to take big shots and Julius Randle room to own the paint.
Spacing would certainly be a change for this team. With the inside-out game they have been playing, the paint has often been clogged. Keldon Johnson has often found ways to get to the rim, but otherwise drives to the basket have been fairly non-existent with this team.
Personally, I think the inside-out strategy is perfect for this roster in theory. Reid Travis has been a beast in the post, and PJ Washington is from time to time. They have done a great job of either scoring, getting fouled, or passing out to an open shooter. The problem is that the shooters have been cold since leaving the Bahamas.
Creating more space could certainly get more open looks and create more room to drive, but it is a big change from what they have been doing. This would likely be a big bigger than a “tweak,” but it is certainly possible.
On the surface, that certainly sounds like a horrible idea, but hear me out. Calipari says over and over again that this should be a good shooting team. Before the season, he said this was likely the best shooting team he has had. Yet, the results have not backed that up.
Reid Travis leads the team in three-point percentage at 57%, and PJ Washington is second at 53%. We all know Tyler Herro can shoot. But the coaching staff has adjusted his release and he is still trying to get comfortable with that change. Now that Quade Green (42%) is leaving Lexington, the remaining members of the backcourt have been atrocious from behind the arc.
So what is the solution for a team whose bigs are shooting better than the guards? What is the remedy for a slump of any kind? Shoot your way out of it.
Calipari may very well get his guys to take more shots from deep just to help them get out of their individual slumps. That would obviously be a big risk based on what we have seen, and there would certainly be a rough couple of games.
But if increasing the amount of three-pointers attempted got everyone more comfortable making shots, then this team could become who we all expected them to be...offensively.
The tweak could also be on the defensive end. Kentucky has given up a ridiculous number of three-pointers this season. And as we saw in the overtime against Seton Hall, nobody seems to be able to keep a ball handler from getting to the basket. However, there is one defensive strategy that has proven successful for the Wildcats this season.
Some stats say a lot, some say a little. Lemme throw this out and you tell me how significant it is.— Justin Rowland (@RowlandRIVALS) December 11, 2018
UK has given up 0.865 PPP playing man this year (bottom 36% nationally). Given up 1.385 PPP playing zone (bottom 3%). They have given up 0.76 PPP using a press (top 61%).
When running a full court press, Kentucky is only giving up .76 points per possession. That is not a top-caliber number by any means, but it is significantly stronger than their numbers in half court man-to-man defense and light years ahead of the success (or that thereof) they have had playing zone.
Pressing makes sense given the personnel. Ashton Hagans would get the green light to harass guards more in the backcourt. Immanuel Quickley can apply pressure there as well. Tyler Herro anticipates passes very well and would likely add to his team-leading 1.3 steals per game. Keldon Johnson’s aggressive approach is also well-suited for press situations.
The frontcourt players also have the versatility to defend on the back end of the press. Yes, Reid Travis is built like Thanos. He also runs the floor very well and is smart enough to cut off a drive or pass if the offense gets past the initial press.
This defensive tweak could make a big difference. Especially considering the depth on Kentucky’s bench, they could really wear teams down by pressing more.
What do you think the 2018-2019 edition of the tweak may be?