I analyzed Kentucky’s clutch performances in close games just over two weeks ago, but since the Wildcats have been involved in tight-knit games in all four of the following contests. Following two incredible comeback victories, one at West Virginia and one in an overtime home win over Vanderbilt, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit who among the young Wildcats are performing best in the clutch.
As a reminder, I analyzed games in which the score was within five points at some point during the last five minutes of the game. I included both the last five minutes of regulation and the five overtime minutes for the Vandy game. So far this season, UK has been in 13 games where the outcome was decided in the last five minutes. The Cats are now 9-4 in close games.
Overall, Kevin Knox’s performance against West Virginia kept him near the top of the team’s clutch performer statistics, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is gaining on him. As with most of their play, inconsistency has been a hallmark this season for the Cats. One game Knox carries the team, the next Gilgeous-Alexander. And then out of nowhere, Quade Green hits the game winning bucket.
The per 40 statistics for the Wildcats suggest that Knox is the clear leader. He is averaging 25.07 points per 40 minutes and is relied upon for over 26 percent of Kentucky’s team points in late game situations.
Focusing on the last four games (contests which include Kentucky’s loss to 66-64 loss to Florida, 78-65 win over Mississippi State where UK pulled ahead in the closing minutes, 83-76 comeback victory over West Virginia, and the 83-81 overtime win over the Commodores), Kentucky again hasn’t seen much consistency from its top performers. Gilgeous-Alexander emerged as somewhat of a go-to guy for the Cats, carrying the way against Vandy, but he struggled in the other three games. One positive for putting the ball in Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands at the end of games is that he has shown an uncanny calmness in recent late game situations, knocking down all six of his free throw attempts in the clutch including a pair of especially essential free throw attempts versus the ‘Dores. As a team, UK’s free throw performance has improved dramatically, as the Wildcats have connected on 20 of 23 attempts from the charity stripe in crucial end of game moments.
Coach John Calipari can’t be happy about the number of assists in the clutch. The Wildcats only have five assists in the 25 minutes I analyzed, with four of those coming from Gilgeous-Alexander. Kentucky has reverted to one on one ball and catch and shoot opportunities when the going gets tough, and it shows in the Wildcats’ 41 percent field goal mark.
Elder statesman Wenyen Gabriel has shown perhaps the most improvement. He has become a fixture in Cal’s lineup in the last five minutes, and that decision has paid off with Gabriel grabbing over 30 percent of the team’s rebounds and a marked improvement in point production. However, with one Cats’ improvement comes the decline of another. Hamidou Diallo’s performance has been abysmal. He has disappeared in the stat line, and it has resulted in Calipari turning more frequently to Green or occasionally Jarred Vanderbilt.
One trend to keep an eye on is Nick Richards’ emergence. He’s played very few minutes, but he’s exceeded expectations with the opportunities he’s received. Vanderbilt has done the same with his rebounding percentages. Cal has settled into a frontcourt of PJ Washington, Gabriel, and Knox, so it will be difficult for Vanderbilt or Richards to steal minutes away from any of those three. We will continue to monitor how each individual performs in the clutch to see what changes over time. For now, it looks as though Kentucky’s late game performance is extremely fluid and could change by the next time we revisit these numbers.