A moderately data driven-ish view of Kentucky's late game issues

Much has been made about coach Calipari's penchant for "taking the air out of the ball" in late game situations. Late in the game, with a lead, too many times have we seen the team pull the ball out, run clock and watch the offense come to a grinding halt. To the extreme frustration of many of us, the slow it down, run the clock approach feels antithetical to the idea of stepping on the gas and putting an opponent away. Many times have I wondered aloud what must sound like in the huddle huddle with a lead and 5 mintues to play. "Ok guys. You know all those things we were doing that helped us build a 6 point lead? Yeah, stop doing those things. Ok, break!"

But who am I to judge? It works right? Well, I wondered, does it?

So I took a semi-data driven view to see what we can see.

I looked at the 2021/2022 season (minus 6 early season cupcake blowouts) and plotted the point differential between UK and its opponents in late game situations - which I defined as from the 5 minute mark forward. Trying to see, does UK really take their foot off the opponent's neck, and does it work? For this analysis I didn't have access to pace of play, so I can't say for certain this time stretch truly represents a slower pace of play... but hey, we have eyes don't we?

First - point differential. Looking at 27 games analyzed, the point differential overall from 5 minutes in is (-.37) or, UK was outscored by their opponent by about a third of a point, effectively null.

Now that number doesn't mean much. First, there were 7 games where UK actually trailed at the 5 minute mark. That's an issue, they actually lost each one of those games. But it's out of scope here. This analysis is about UKs propensity to BLOW a lead, so these games don't count. Take those out and the differential, looking only at games where UK was ahead, and it doesn't really change much. Answer is now (-.45). But, second, there were a lot of games where UK had a very comfortable lead at 5 minutes to play. Taking the air out of the ball when you have an 18 point lead, then winning by 17, I don't think is at issue here. So let's throw that out. The strategy only begins to get frustrating during CLOSE games.

Here's where it begins to be telling. For this, I identified a close game as one where a team is ahead by 10 points or less with 5 minutes to play. There are 14 of those (adding back in the ones UK was trailing, to get a baseline). So looking only at close games, UKs point differential the rest of the way dips to (-1.35). On average, UK opponents score nearly one and half points more than UK in close games, late. That's not good in late games where every point counts. Could that be style of play? Or the yips? Could be either, or both.

So now I separate into some inference of philosophy vs pressure. Let's look at the difference when UK is leading vs when they're playing catch up. There were 8 games classified as close, with under 5 minutes, where UK was holding a lead. Depressingly, they went just 6-2 in those games, scoring (-1.38) fewer points than their opponents from 5 min to the end of regulation (technically it was 7-1, one game went to overtime, in which they won, but going to overtime in this view is a 'loss' of the lead). Losing a lead in 1/3 of the time doesn't feel like a very successful strategy.

But maybe it's just how close games go? Don't other teams do the same thing? It would appear not. There were 6 games where UK was in the opposite position. They were trailing in a close game with 5 minutes left. Did the opponents give up a similar amount of points? Uh, no. In those games opponents GAINED 1.33 points (UK lost them all). Other teams begin to pull away. UK lets teams back in.

Is this truly scientific? Not really. Can you draw any real conclusions in this limited view? Meh. Does it confirm my admitted bias against slowing down the game late? Sure enough.

Thanks for playing.