There hasn’t been much rhyme or reason to this Kentucky basketball season.
One game in, the Wildcats look like they can beat anyone in the country. The next, they look like they’re not in the NCAA tournament at all. That was the case from the start of the 2022-23 season — which began with UK ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 rankings — until last week’s Southeastern Conference tournament, where an NIT-bound Vanderbilt team Defeated the Cats for the second time in nine days,
In between, a whole bunch of basketballs that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But there is at least one statistic that tells us who these wildcats really are. And if this situation persists when the NCAA tournament begins later this week, it will be just another short March Madness for John Calipari’s team.
So far this season, Kentucky has struggled mightily against opponents with elite offenses and has found ways to win against teams that are typically great on defense.
Bad news for cats? their first round opponents are frugalityAnd the Friars have an elite offense.
from Sunday evening, Providence was ranked 16th nationally In offensive efficiency according to KenPom. A key for the Friars on that end is their 35.2 offensive rebound rate, which ranks 16th in the nation. his star, Former Kentucky player Bryce Hopkins, leads the team in points (16.1) and rebounds (8.5) and shoots 76.3 percent on free throws and 37.8 percent on threes. Overall, Friars ranks 24th nationally in free throw attempts per game and shoots 74.5 percent from the line. They’re not great on defense (108th nationally, according to KenPom), but they do find ways to score.
And teams finding ways to score have given Kentucky few problems this season.
UK has played seven games against opponents ranked in the top 25 in Kenpom Offensive Efficiency. The Cats have a 1–6 record in those games, with losses to Gonzaga, Missouri, Alabama, Vanderbilt (twice) and UCLA. The only win came over Vandy, who scored just 53 points that night in late January.
Meanwhile, Kentucky is 20–5 in games against everyone, including seven wins over teams ranked in the top 30 in defensive efficiency by KenPom.
For all the criticism early in the season UK’s offense has been generally effective, thanks in part to the team’s high level of offensive rebounding (second best in the nation behind UConn). But the Cats’ defense hasn’t been great – downright awful by Calipari standards.
According to KenPom, the Cats go with the nation’s No. 71 defense at the time of the NCAA tournament. UK’s worst finish in Calipari’s last 13 seasons was 88th nationally in 2013, when Nerlens Noel was lost to injury and Kentucky finished in the NIT. The second-worst finish in that stat — prior to this season — was 52nd nationally (in 2020), and those are the only times in the last 13 years the Cats have been worse than 40th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. (They’ve finished in the Top 10 five times under Calipari.)
Just watching the game tells the story. UK struggled to defend opponents on the perimeter, the Cats had no real rim-protectors to stop driving players, and their star, Oscar Tshebwe often isolated successfully by opposing coaches.
There have been signs of improvement and greater connectivity on defense, but the problems that plagued Kentucky just last week were on full display in a loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
Commodore appears to have inherited RIM at will. And he made seven threes in the first half.
Calipari said of the breakdown, “Early in the game, it was layup.” “We talked about it at halftime. They were a little quick. We were trying to give space, but we didn’t want to give angles. And we gave angles.
A repeat performance on Friday night could be combined with an early trip to Lexington.
Some good news for the Wildcats…
KenPom projects Kentucky to be a winner over the Friars, but just barely. The website predicts a 75–73 win for the Cats and a 57 percent chance of victory.
And if UK can survive Providence, it will most likely face 3rd-seeded Kansas State in the second round. The Big 12 Wildcats are No. 52 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, the worst number – by a wide margin – of any top-3 seed in the region. (The other 11 teams in the 1-2-3 seed range are all Top 30 in that stat.)
Therefore, a win over Providence may well set up a 3 vs. 6 matchup that Kentucky can hope to make in the second round. Win that one, and the Wildcats will move on to the Sweet 16 in New York, where a matchup with 2-seeded Marquette (and the nation’s No. 8 offense) may await.
But Kentucky must first get past the Friars.
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