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Kentucky Basketball: Examining the Wildcats’ Ball Movement

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Kentucky needs more from its offense if things are going to turn around this season.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is carrying the Kentucky offense.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Ball movement was a focal point for the Kentucky offense after a miserable offensive output against Missouri on Saturday.

Following the loss against Mizzou, Kentucky coach John Calipari said he is looking for someone to share the ball to improve offensive efficiency.

“I try to find five guys that can pass it to each other. That’s all I was looking for.”

So how did the Wildcats do passing to one another in a huge matchup Tuesday against 15th ranked Tennessee?

Calipari is generous with the assist count for his Wildcats.

“If you throw it ahead and someone else throws it to somebody else for an assist, I’m giving you an assist, too,” he said. “There’s a hundred ways now to get an assist. But to get an assist, you must start by passing the ball.”

Did Calipari’s extra emphasis on passing improve UK’s offensive performance?

I examined ball movement to assess any change in playing style. I tracked passes during Kentucky’s offensive possessions against Tennessee once the Wildcats passed halfcourt.

In other words, I didn’t count passes when the rebounder passed it to the point guard in the backcourt. I didn’t count points scored on offensive rebounds, putbacks, transition buckets, or free throws from fouls prior to Kentucky setting up in a halfcourt set.

I didn’t count Kevin Knox’s slam dunk on the baseline out of bounds play early in the second half. I only counted passes during halfcourt offensive possessions to determine Kentucky’s effectiveness depending on ball movement and passing.

Kentucky was inefficient overall in halfcourt sets, but the Wildcats were most efficient when they passed at least six times in an offensive possession. UK scored 0.92 points per possession when it passed six or more times. However, we are dealing with an incredibly small sample size because Kentucky passed the ball over six times on just 12 possessions all night.

Should the Wildcats pass the ball more in their offensive sets?

Following the Missouri game, Cal said the offense was too reliant on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

“We need Shai to do some of the stuff he’s doing, but he took 16 shots. He needs to take about 10 shots. You had your two point guards take 27 shots.”

On Tuesday, Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green combined for 20 shots.

Kentucky again relied on Gilgeous-Alexander against the Vols, often allowing the point guard to keep the ball in pick and roll situations to try to create any offense at all.

As a result of the emphasis on one on one ball, the Wildcats passed less than twice on over 50 percent of their halfcourt possessions. Kentucky passed less than five times on almost 80 percent of their possessions, resulting in 0.74 points per possession. This level of distribution can’t be what Calipari had in mind.

It would be nice to see a larger sample size of 6 or more passes

As good as Gilgeous-Alexander is, and he has been phenomenal this season, he can’t carry this team by himself through March. Kentucky has to get more ball movement on offense because the team has become stagnant and offensive production has struggled.

If the Wildcats are going to come together, they aren’t going to do it solely on Gilgeous-Alexander isolations. Kentucky is 6-5 in conference play, and if that is going to improve, the Wildcats are going to need to move the ball like their coach is asking.