Sun Dec 01 12:13pm EST
Mark Stoops was asked, after the finality of his first season as Kentucky head coach had set in with a loss to Tennessee, how his team had improved since the beginning of the year.
"I know we're progressing," Stoops said. "It's hard for me to define that exactly."
Perhaps that's because it's hard to find any areas where Kentucky made concrete improvement.
The records (2-10, 0-8 SEC) were identical to the year before. And taking a deeper dive into the statistics reveals this: UK was slightly better on offense, and slightly worse on defense.
Here's a full chart of Kentucky stats from 2012 to 2013 (note that positive integers in the difference column means improvement, not necessarily a higher number in the latter year).
Perhaps most jarring is just how far UK's offense fell short of being what Neal Brown stated as his preseason goals.
He wanted 75 plays or more per game, and the offense actually took a dip in terms of plays per game.
He wanted a 40 percent conversion rate on third downs, and fell well below that (as well as well below last year's mark).
And very striking is that UK didn't improve from the beginning of the year, when some difficulties were expected, to the beginning of the year.
"I'm disappointed in our offensive output this year," Brown said. "I think our fans are disappointed. I understand that. What I can tell them is good news is, all the guys that made plays tonight will be back."
That goes for defense, too, where opponents sliced open Stoops' defense even easier (statistically speaking) than Rick Minter's defense last year. Teams had much more success both passing and running.
So Year One wasn't what Stoops wanted. He still sounded confident that things looked optimistic for the future.
"We know that we are laying a foundation in our program," Stoops said, "and everybody in that locker room knows that we are going to get back to work here real soon, like Monday, and be ready to go and push forward for the future."
Sun Dec 01 10:38am EST
The month of December will be a very telling one for UK.
Why? Every opponent will be a competitive team, one capable of testing (and beating) Kentucky. It's not usually that way for every single game in December; this one is. UK faces three teams ranked in the AP Top 25 (Baylor, UNC and Louisville) and two others that are in the 'receiving votes' category (Boise State, Belmont).
The list, with KenPom rankings listed in parentheses:
-- Providence (52)
-- Baylor (37)
-- Boise State (58)
-- North Carolina (11)
-- Belmont (62)
-- Louisville (1)
That's an average ranking of 36.8.
The average ranking of December opponents in previous years in the Calipari Era?
-- 2012: 178.3
-- 2011: 121.6
-- 2010: 137.8
-- 2009: 162.6
The main difference is playing Boise/Baylor in place of the usual cupcake games. Those two are solid teams and can test UK.
All told, by the time the New Year's starts, I think we'll know a lot more about where Kentucky sits in the college basketball pecking order
Tue Nov 26 11:59pm EST
Andrew Harrison had his first big-impact game against Cleveland State, and did it when Kentucky needed him most: down the stretch.
Hindered with foul trouble, he directed Kentucky's late-game charge that turned an upset alert (and concerning loss) into a close win with a couple redeemable takeaways.
As Kentucky changed the score from a 47-54 to a 63-57 lead in the last seven minutes, Harrison directly factored into 12 of those 16 Kentucky points.
"Great players get better under pressure," Harrison said.
"Andrew made the plays," John Calipari said. "It's nice to know we got two or three guys now we can go to if the game is in the balance."
How'd he do it? Let's take a closer look:
I've been critical of Harrison's ability to create for others this season. Through five games he hadn't drove from the perimeter to initiate offense and get his teammates open looks.
Late in the game, he was able to do that against a packed-in zone by taking advantage of mistakes and using his bigger frame.
In this play, Harrison capitalizes on a Cleveland State breakdown -- you can see one of the guards scrambling across the top of the zone to retreat back toward a UK shooter, leaving the other guard slightly susceptible to a drive to the left. Harrison does just that, and even better, is able to read the floor. He's got a shoot/pass/pass option here with both Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle hovering near the basket; he chooses Cauley-Stein and places a quick lob pass in a perfect location.
And this one, where Harrison takes advantage of a defense that's scrambling, out of place and in no shape to defend a drive. I especially like that Harrison passed up decent opportunities for either a pull-up jumper or floater (the lane was pretty clear for either) for a great look to Cauley-Stein.
It's the direct opposite of one of Calipari's criticisms, who said that Harrison is too often "not ready to play" when he gets the ball. Calipari said Harrison "needs to know he's a playmaker for us" and drive it immediately upon receiving a pass, which is precisely what he does here:
Harrison did a much better job of driving with confidence against Cleveland State than, say, Michigan State, when he would try to beat his man and then end up stuck in traffic in the middle of the lane, forced into a bad shot or pass.
Granted, it's a much easier defense to drive and finish against, but these types of plays were encouraging to see for a player that has seemed to struggle with deciding when to facilitate and when to be the natural scorer he's always been.
And this one, where UK's offense flows smoothly from a Harrison-to-Harrison dribble handoff into a Harrison-Cauley-Stein pick-and-roll that Harrison uses to beat his man:
An Aware Assist
This was a less eye-catching play, but one I think it just as important. Calipari runs the same exact set as the one directly above -- a Harrison/Harrison dribble handoff into a Harrison/Cauley-Stein pick-and-roll -- and I think Harrison shows some crucial patience in navigating his way and being aware of what's going around him.
It would have been easy, given his previous successes at attacking, to just blindly charge into the paint. Instead, he realized the lane wasn't open and slowed down, but still remained active to find James Young for an open shot. (Also not shown: a craft little dribble-hesitation move as he went around the pick, although that move didn't result in anything great.)
Ultimately,Harrison showed some very encouraging things down the stretch. I'm not ready to say it was a "coming-of-age" game for him. Not only was it against Cleveland State (so grain of salt), but it was only one game. No matter who it came against, I'd still want to see him do this type of stuff more consistently, both within a game and from game-to-game.
Although Randle says Harrison's clutch play wasn't surprising to him.
"I mean, I didn't need to see him do it," Randle said. "I knew he could do it. But maybe for himself. He needed to see himself do it so he can have confidence and know, 'I can do it.'"
Harrison is arguably the player UK needs to play up to his full potential the most out of those not doing so. Behind Randle, I think he can be UK's second-best player on the offensive end.
"He really stood out," Young said. "He directed us a lot. He told us where to go, what to do. He just really stepped up."
We'll see if he can build on those last seven minutes against Eastern Michigan.
Wed Nov 20 12:18am EST
Is this Kentucky's best rebounding team under John Calipari?
He thinks so.
And the numbers prove him right, especially on the offensive end.
On that side of the ball, Kentucky has successfully grabbed 90 of a possible 180 offensive rebounding chances (50 percent).
Here are the offensive rebounding percentages of each of his UK teams through their first five games:
2012-13: 45 of a possible 145 offensive rebounds (31 percent).
2011-12: 61 of a possible 163 offensive rebounds (37.4 percent).
2010-11: 74 of a possible 188 offensive rebounds (39.4 percent).
2009-10: 75 of a possible 160 offensive rebounds (46.9 percent).
That's strong stuff, and Dakari Johnson even called the offensive rebounding success the biggest positive surprise of the season.
So who's leading the charge? Here are UK's top offensive rebounders, in order of their per-minute rank:
1) Alex Poythress (1.79 per 10 minutes)
2) Willie Cauley-Stein (1.75 per 10 minutes)
3) Julius Randle (1.70 per 10 minutes)
4) Marcus Lee (1.54 per 10 minutes)
5) Dakari Johnson (1.36 per 10 minutes)
Tt this point, they've been better than any UK group under Calipari, even one led by the beastly DeMarcus Cousins.
To put that 50 percent rebounding rate in context, the highest offensive rebounding percentage since 2003 over the course of a full year is 45.3 percent, according to Ken Pomeroy's statistical database.
UK won't sustain that figure over an entire season. They've put up that number against Michigan State and four bad opponents/rebounding teams. Once SEC play comes around, especially, it will dip.
But how far? Of those four teams, the two strongest dipped between 5 and 7 percentage points by the end of the season. The third-strongest team stayed about the same, and the weakest actually improved.
So maybe Kentucky doesn't get half of its offensive rebound chances this year. They'll still likely be a top-10 group, and I wouldn't be surprised if they challenged for that 45 percent mark.
Thu Nov 14 02:05am EST
There was a lot to take away from Kentucky's four-point loss to No. 2 Michigan State.
So much that I wanted to take a little bit of a deeper dive into the game, since it's (by far) the most meaningful 40 minutes of high-level basketball the Wildcats have played and will play, until December.
Here are 10 things, in no particular order, that I either liked or didn't like. Some involve the biggest and most glaring issues, good and bad. Some are perhaps a bit less overt. Anyway, here we go.
1) Like: Julius Randle, Julius Randle, Julius Randle
Where else can you start except here, with him? Randle continued his torrid (and record-setting) start to the season, despite a lackluster and timid first half. What was incredible was that, out of 14 shots, I really disliked only one (a jab-step/fadeaway from just inside the arc in the first half). Everything else was high-quality stuff, and he once again displayed silky moves darting in from the basket, bulldozer-like physicality in the post and polished back-to-the-basket moves, like this:
The scary thing, of course, is that Randle has room to get much more polished. Michigan State scouted him to perfection and, as Calipari predicted, sat on his spin move. Both guards digging down and post defenders guarding him jumped that move:
What I'll be watching for moving forward is if UK's offense stays this reliant on Randle. Coming into the season, I expected this team to be very balanced, a la the 2012 team, just because of how much talent was here. But Randle has quickly asserted himself as the primary option -- so much so that 12 percent of UK's points through three games are from Randle free throws.
2) Dislike: Pick-and-roll defense
Defense is the side of the ball with more concerns at this point. Part of that is natural, given that Calipari started working with the team later on it than offense. Guarding the pick-and-rolls, and lack of execution on that, can probably be chalked up to that factor. But it was still a bit disconcerting to see UK get beat consistently on simple pick-and-roll action, and here's why: they made mistakes in pretty much every way.
Some breakdowns came because the two players involved mixed up whether to switch or not; some came because the big man didn't hedge enough; some came because UK was trying to cheat through screens, like this one (watch Aaron Harrison lean into the screen and set his feet to move that direction):
Or this one, where Poythress gets caught cheating in the same way:
3) Like: Alex Poythress' effort
Poythress had shown significant, and critical, signs of improvement in UK's first two games. The fact that he showed the same toughness and effort against Michigan State is even better. He's honed in on exactly what his game should be, and it complements the rest of how this roster should end up looking very well.
He's also become a lot smarter and conscientious about chasing offensive rebounds. Watch him slide in from the perimeter, around two Spartans, to put himself in position for a put-back here:
4) Dislike: Andrew Harrison's decisions
A lot's been made of Andrew Harrison, and deservingly so. He's the star point guard on a top-five team. I think he'll be perfectly fine long term -- remember Marquis Teague and how long it took him -- but Tuesday showed us, and hopefully him, just what it takes to be a point guard at the highest level.
So many of his drive/shoot/pass decisions ended up being the wrong one. And that's to be expected, but I also thought he didn't show much of an ability to make an adjustment against a Michigan State defense that was clearly packing the paint and trying to take away penetration.
5) Like: James Young designed plays
John Calipari said Young was "pressing" in UK's first two games. Didn't look like it Tuesday, and it was telling that as the rest of his teammates drifted through the first half, Young was UK's only true offensive option.
He's also perhaps the best fit for one of Calipari's pet plays, where a ball handler sets up in the paint before running around a down screen on either side of the court. Young is especially well-suited for this task because he poses a dual threat coming off the screen: he can pull up for a 3-pointer or continue curling and drive. He showed both, as seen below:
6) Like and dislike: Willie Cauley-Stein's defense
It was Cauley-Stein who lost Brendan Dawson for the game-sealing putback. And he had the occasional lapse on defense, like this one, where he straight-up saunters, like a UK student crossing the street, to go help defend a pick-and-roll.
But this play also shows why I like Cauley-Stein: he has so much natural feel for help-side and off-ball defense. He can cover up not only his own mistakes but his teammates' a lot of times. He's as close to the Davis/Noel type of last-line defender this team has, and that's a large part of why UK's defense is allowing 0.92 points per possession when Cauley-Stein is in the game versus 1.00 when he's on the bench.
7) Like: Calipariiiiiii Calipari
Usually, Calipari's screaming, pointing and verbally harassing referees as far as he's allowed to take it. But after one call that he thought should have been a travel it looked like he was just done even trying.
8) Dislike: Transition defense
This goes along with pick-and-roll defense. Kentucky is young, hasn't worked much on this and was going against a team that was looking to push the ball at every opportunity. So I get that mistakes will happen and assignments will be missed.
But when you've got the numbers in your favor on defense, and it's off a set play, there's just no real excuse for it.
9) Like: Guard post-ups
It's a ploy Calipari's used about once per game this season. Makes sense when you've got guards standing 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6. Against Michigan State, he used a James Young post-up to facilitate a Julius Randle cut down the lane.
I'd honestly be perfectly fine with getting more post-ups for guards, especially when Cauley-Stein is in the game, since he's not much of a true post-up threat:
10) Dislike: Guards' perimeter defense
I've quickly pegged the Harrison twins as below-average defenders, especially off the ball. They gamble too frequently and at bad times; they get lost by following their ball as their man moves around the perimeter; and their defense on screens is inconsistent even when situations call for the same action.
And, from the looks of this play, their communication is, at the very least, lacking at times:
Ultimately,a game that showed that this Kentucky team is, in fact, just learning to play with each other (first half), and a game that showed why this Kentucky team is, in fact, still the national title favorite (second half).
We've got a long way to go. I can't wait to see how it develops from here.
Wed Nov 13 06:45pm EST
An average of 4 million viewers tuned in to the Kentucky-Michigan State telecast, the second-highest figure for a non-conference game on ESPN, the network announced.
The highest? 2008, Memphis vs. Tennessee, another No. 1 vs. No. 2 game that featured John Calipari.
The Kansas-Duke game averaged 3 million viewers.
Here are the top 10 metered markets for the UK-Michigan State game:
5) Kansas City
Wed Nov 13 06:19pm EST
Magic Johnson told SNY.TV that Julius Randle might be his choice for No. 1 pick.
Now, before the quotes, an important note, I think: Magic was interviewed right after the Kentucky game, and before the Kansas game, so he hadn't seen Wiggins or Parker yet.
But the quotes are still good. Here they are, via Adam Zagoria:
"He's already one of the best college players. That's a foregone conclusion. I think now it's him continuing to improve, listen to the coaches to get ready for next season because he's got a chance to definitely be No. 1. ...
"Oh, can he play because he is so good and because he can go outside, inside. He got so many moves, whether he's driving it or whether he's on the post and then he's very intelligent and he's physical. He's going to be one of the best because he can put it down. There's not too many guys who can shoot it and put it down on the floor, create his own shot. And he's mean. I like that he's mean and he wants the basketball."
You can read the rest here. Jalen Rose also weighs in with his thoughts, and both of them address to Randle-to-LeBron comparison.
Mon Nov 11 11:34pm EST
Right or wrong, valid or not, Kentucky vs. Michigan State is being billed as talent vs. experience.
Tom Izzo isn't quite sure that his team is being given proper credit for their talent, but there's no denying this:
His team has plenty of experience.
The top seven rotation players for the Spartans have played in a combined 447 college basketball games, logging a total of 9,781 minutes.
Kentucky's top seven? 76 games, 1,861 minutes.
In fact, two Michigan State players (Adreian Payne and Keith Appling) have each played more minutes of college basketball than UK's top seven.
Of course, how much that factors into the game is still to be seen.
One person isn't conceding the experience as a significant advantage.
"I'm not buying into it," Julius Randle said. "We're playing the same game."
Here's the full breakdown of the top seven players for each team:
Payne -- 108 games, 1,913 minutes
Appling -- 108 games, 3,150 minutes
Costello -- 31 games, 200 minutes
Harris -- 35 games, 1,037 minutes
Valentine -- 37 games, 771 minutes
Dawson -- 68 games, 1,633 minutes
Trice -- 60 games, 1,077 minutes
Poythress -- 35 games, 893 minutes
Cauley-Stein -- 31 games, 721 minutes
Randle -- 2 games, 55 minutes
Andrew Harrison -- 2 games, 55 minutes
Aaron Harrison -- 2 games, 55 minutes
Young -- 2 games, 56 minutes
Johnson -- 2 games, 26 minutes
Fri Nov 08 02:00pm EST
On the verge of the season officially tipping off for Kentucky, here are 10 things I'm excited/curious to see this year (in no particular order, really, just as they came to my head while writing):
10. That Michigan State game. The earliest meeting of No. 1 and No. 2, barely over a weekend away. We'll get to see just how close Kentucky is to being the team to beat in college basketball, right here, right now.
9. Julius Randle's perimeter game. He's already smooth working outside-in after being self-admittedly uncomfortable playing like that. Remember how Anthony Davis was a bit raw at the beginning of the year? Randle could take the same quantum leap and challenge for national Player of the Year as he gets better and better from outside.
8. Kentucky's defense. For years, stretching back to the his final two teams at Memphis, Calipari has coached his teams into being elite (as in top-15) defenses. That stopped last year. Without a Noel/Davis type to protect the rim (Cauley-Stein is a facsimile but not quite at their level), Calipari must get his freshmen on the perimeter to fully buy in to that side of the ball. And if/once they do, watch out. With that speed and length, this defense could be terrifying for opponents.
7. Rolling through SEC play. The 2012 title team really started to look like the juggernaut it was in conference play, blowing out almost every team they should have blown out and closing out tight games against good opponents the way a true contender should. By January, this team should be rounding into top form. Can the Cats challenge an undefeated SEC schedule again?
6. The Cauley-Stein/Dakari split. Two really talented players, two really different playing styles. Cauley-Stein will finish lobs and run with the rest of the fast-paced team; Dakari is a bulldozer down low who Calipari will want to feed on the post. Does one emerge over the other as the better complement to the rest of the roster, or do they remain in a 50/50 split?
5. Andrew Harrison's return. While the exhibition games were a bit underwhelming, we haven't seen this team with its starting point guard who's considered one of the 25 best players in the country right now. Calipari said Andrew "makes this team different." Just how much "better" can he make them?
4. James Young's steals. I had no idea Young was that active on the perimeter. He still needs some work guarding on-the-ball, but his instincts for when to swipe at the dribble and when to play passing lanes is fantastic. Will he be assigned to the other team's best player? And could he challenge Rajon Rondo's school record for single-season steals (87)? Young would have to average about 2.5 steals per game to break it.
3. Alex Poythress' production. His sophomore campaign already has lots of question marks. Are we in for a repeat of last year or is he ready to make a jump? From what I've seen, I'd bank more on Poythress remaining an enigma and ending up as nothing more than the 7th/8th man, an overqualified solid rotation piece who fills in at SF/PF depending on who's out at any given time.
2. Marcus Lee's minutes. One of the more mysterious players on the team right now. He didn't play in the first half in either of the exhibition games, and Calipari said it was because he needed to check out other guys. Does that mean he knows what Lee will provide and use him as a significant rotation player? Or does it mean he knows what Lee doesn't provide -- he mentioned that Lee doesn't have the skills to be a power forward right now -- and there's simply too much crowding in the front court for him to get anything more than 5-7 minutes per game?
1. History. No team has ever won the championship since 1986, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, with less than 36 percent of its previous team's point production returning. Kentucky brings back 31 percent. Can the Cats make history and become the team least reliant on returning pieces to ever win the title?
Wed Nov 06 01:23am EST
Maybe it was because we saw Anthony Davis two years ago and became spoiled.
Whatever the case, Kentucky's failure throwing lobs -- the Wildcats committed four of their 16 turnovers on alley-oop attempts -- in its second exhibition game was somewhat strange to see.
"(Some of) them hit the shot clock," John Calipari said, "like, what in the world?"
There was plenty else of note from that game. Julius Randle's continued comfort on the perimeter, yet his ease at scoring from the paint in crunch time; Willie Cauley-Stein's quiet first half and his torrid start to the second half; Alex Poythress' improvements; the overall defense.
But the magnitude of all those are tempered, at least right now, by the fact that it's an exhibition and Kentucky is playing without its point guard. So instead, let's look at the lobs, which have been an issue for the Wildcats in preseason. (Marcus Lee, the team's best lob-catcher but someone whose minutes are unclear right now, said "we've thrown some bad lobs" at Media Day.)
Play One: Cauley-Stein to Randle
The first one came on Kentucky's first play, meaning it was probably designed. Cauley-Stein gets the ball at the top; Julius Randle darts toward the basket on a down screen by Aaron Harrison. It's great, in concept. You draw the opposing center (and logical best rim-protector) out as far from the basket as possible; Julius Randle has the quickness to beat his man and the size to finish.
But on this one play, the pass is poorly timed, and Harrison's man does a good job of getting a body on Randle and disrupting his path as he rushes toward the basket. Result: turnover.
Play Two: Polson to Cauley-Stein
This is the most ambitious try of the four. It's a fast break, and Jarrod Polson decided, around half court, to toss up a lob for Cauley-Stein, racing toward to the basket from the other wing. This was a really, really difficult try, as Cauley-Stein is moving at full speed; that allows for much less room for error than one in which the receiver can set and essentially time his jump.
As it turns out, Polson's throws was just a bit high and in front of Cauley-Stein, who got a fully extended hand on the ball but couldn't come close to corralling it enough to throw it down. Result: turnover.
Play Three: Hood to Cauley-Stein
This one comes from a half court set, as well. Jon Hood takes a hand-off in the right corner and slashes toward the middle of the floor. His drive draws the attention of Cauley-Stein's man, enough to make Cauley-Stein raise his hand, indicating the opening for a lob. But Hood's toss hovers for too long, and Cauley-Stein reaches the apex of his jump before the ball reach him. Result: turnover.
Play Four: Cauley-Stein to Young
This was the second lob attempt on a fast break. Instead of the point guard running things, though, it's the center (how freakish is that?). Cauley-Stein grabbed a rebound and took off for the other end; also around half court, he saw James Young streaking down the opposite wing. He tossed up the lob around the 3-point line, but this one, too, just wasn't timed well enough. Result: turnover.
Ultimately,this isn't too much of a concern. Lobs are based on timing, and that will improve through repetition, practice and developing chemistry.
But there is some merit, I think, to the notion of successfully converting lobs being part innate. So much of it is instincts -- having a feel for the other person involved, their spacing on the court, the timing of your part and their part working in sync, the angles, etc. I don't remember that 2012 team ever struggling with lobs, and while Anthony Davis certainly reeled in his fair share of passes that had no business going through the rim, it still came pretty natural for that whole team.
This team will develop it, though. It's obviously important enough for them to if Calipari is calling the first play to have at least the option of a lob, and we see even through these four just how many chances UK will get (I mean, its center was on the passing end twice and on the receiving end twice).
It didn't happen Monday, but Rupp Arena will be rocking from converted lob dunks plenty of times this year.