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What advanced analytics say about Kentucky’s struggling offense

What if I told you Nick Richards is Kentucky’s best player?

Kentucky Nick Richards Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

If you have shared the privilege of reading my articles about Kentucky Basketball this season, you probably know that I am for the most part negligent to statistics—particularly advanced analytics as I have failed to mention a single “advanced” stat this entire season.

Today, I binge. Cruising around my favorite kooky college basketball stats site, barttovrik.com, I found—and I hate to admit this—some thought-provoking insight on this year’s Kentucky basketball team.

The more I surfed through Bart’s numeric gibberish, confusion trapped me like a pair of Chinese handcuffs. Every time I thought I had a stat figured out, it would spit out some ridiculous fact like Dwayne Sutton is the most important offensive player in the country! He isn’t even the most important offensive player on his own team!

Audacious player-specific stats with names like PORPAGATU! (sounds like an exotic turtle species) were responsible for most of the wackiness, although I should mention Nick Richards is a top-five-percent player in the nation in that stat. I’m not saying he is our best player but there isn’t a clear-cut case against it, right? (Discuss in the comments).

Okay, on to the meat of the piece: where Kentucky stacks up in a slew of relevant categories. I’ll make a little chart here and explain right after.

SO, I didn’t really make this chart. I screen-captured it from Bart Torvik (the link to Kentucky’s entire page HERE for your own perusal).

“Adj. Eff” in elongated form represents Adjusted Efficiency, the truest measure of total offense according to Bart. Calculated as the number of points a team produces per 100 possessions. And a specific player’s Offensive Rating is the number of points the team produces per 100 with him on the floor. Kentucky so far has turned in a 106.8 which ranks 42nd in the nation. A bit surprising to me honestly.

Have you watched Kentucky’s offense against some of the scrubs we played the last month? They’re struggling far more than a team with this much talent should. They mustered just 64 vs. Evansville, who followed up their “program-altering” win with consecutive losses to SMU, East Carolina and George Washington before prevailing in triple overtime over Morgan State.

Yes, Kentucky stands at 6-1 and of course are still top-25 worthy (I wouldn’t strangle you for arguing the other way) but myriad issues remain on O. Let’s just assess the problems 1-5 on the position chart:

Ashton Hagans is our most important offensive player—pretty clear if you watch the games (take that, PORPAGATU!). He handles the ball 95% of the time he’s on the floor because Immanuel’s running Herro/Murray zig-zags as the premier deep threat, Tyrese Maxey only knows how to play basketball against the number one team in the country and Johnny Juzang doesn’t get enough minutes.

For someone with a Harden-esque dribbling load and no ability to shoot 32-foot Freudian step-backs, the turnover is a handy weapon. 3.4 per game actually. But that’s where Ash’s deficiencies end, frankly—he still posts nearly double the TO total in assists (6.3/game) and shoots 52% from two-point range. Plus, he just knows how to circumvent an offense.

I mentioned Ty and IQ, the wings/two-guards who also spend time at three. Immanuel’s 40% from three is an oasis in a desert of inherent shot-missers, so he’s helping both by merely not bricking every open three. Maxey still ranks in the green offensively, but that’s the Michigan State outlier flipping a seven-game sample size. Since he lit up the Spartans for 26, Maxey moves through our offense like a kidney stone, stagnating it even further. The wings are fine; just fine.

IQ plays a lot of three with the Sestina injury but Brooks and Whitney began the season playing the position. They’ve been rather dreadful, to be light, posting the two lowest offensive ratings of the guys who actually play. They check in at 92.6 (Keion) and 83.2 (Kahlil).

Those numbers are red on Bart’s site. Yikes, considering we’re ranked 8th in the nation and O-rating is a collective stat. Keion’s a ball stopper (lowest ast-rtg of any non-center) who isn’t all that efficient and Kahlil I forget is on the court during most offensive possessions. Much improvement necessary while the duo battles on the defensive end.

The 4-spot features a heavy dose of Kahlil and Keion, so they anchor Sestina’s team-second-best O-rating of 120.3 a bit. No other way around it, Nate is vital. Don’t let people tell you experience doesn’t matter. It does.

What? Is not having it better than having it? NO. That’s ludicrous. In a hurricane start to the season, Nate was a calming, consistent offensive presence in every way that’s difficult to describe. Setting smart screens, assassinating his two-point attempts (64.3%) and moving around the court like someone who isn’t a teenager but instead has played college ball for half a decade.

Ready for this? I teased you earlier: Nick Richards is the highest rated offensive player on the team. 125.4. Eyes back the number up. Nick’s a dunking jackhammer now, operating scorchingly in the pick-and-roll with Ashton Hagans (credited to “conversations Ashton and I have had over the years”), swishing mid-range jumpers and backdoor-ing underneath the hoop.

Credit the vast improvements to his improved sense of spacing. He stopped hanging out by the three point line and started setting more screens and prowling the block/charge circle for dives and mid-range pops. Joel Embiid could learn a thing or two from Nick. He’s awesome! EJ...eh, he really hasn’t played enough at either position to judge him but he finally looked healthy last week, and that’s all you can hope for this early in the year with Nate already down.

At-large, Kentucky is a plodding semi-potent offensive unit thriving on Hagans/Richards pick-and-rolls and drawing fouls (9th in FT-Rate and 15th in FT%) waiting for its shooting and young forwards to find their footing.