After five games, here’s what we know about this Kentucky basketball team

·4 min read
Sahvir Wheeler’s ability to penetrate defenses has been a game-changer for Kentucky this season.

It’s a small sample size, just five games against a primarily soft schedule, but here are five things we know about this 4-1 Kentucky basketball team:

1. This is an improved offensive team

According to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analytics, Kentucky was 84th in adjusted offensive efficiency while stumbling to last season’s 9-16 record. This year, the Cats rank 12th.

Three-point shooting is one reason for the improvement. Last season’s team shot just 33.6 percent from three-point range. That ranked 172nd nationally. The current Cats are shooting 37.8 percent. That ranks 69th nationally. Newcomer Kellan Grady is 12-of-22 for 54.5 percent from three. Davion Mintz is 5-of-11 for 45.5 percent. And Dontaie Allen has yet to find his stroke. Allen missed all five of his three-point attempts in Monday night’s 86-61 win over Albany. He’ll heat up.

2. This is an excellent free-throw shooting team

Through five games, Kentucky has made 83.3 percent of its free throws. That ranks 11th nationally. Last year’s team shot 72.9. That ranked 102nd nationally.

A persistent perception is Calipari’s teams struggle from the foul line. His 2008 Memphis team’s free-throw failures late in the national championship loss to Kansas fed the narrative. At Kentucky, however, that hasn’t always been the case.

In fact, Calipari’s 2019-20 UK team led the nation in free-throw shooting at 79.7 percent. This year’s club is on a similar path. Sahvir Wheeler is 10-of-11 at the line for 90.9 percent. Only 5-foot-9 but unafraid to take it to the rim, he should draw more fouls. Keion Brooks is 11-of-13 at the line for 84.6 percent. TyTy Washington is 10-of-12 for 83.3.

True, this team has yet to face pressure-packed moments at the line. Still, it’s a good start.

3. The transfers are making a difference

It’s a shame CJ Fredrick is not likely to return after hamstring surgery. The former Covington Catholic star transferred to UK after three years at Iowa. Fredrick is a terrific shooter and underrated passer. His presence would have helped.

Meanwhile, his friends from the transfer portal are as advertised. Wheeler is averaging 8.2 assists per game. Kellan Grady’s perimeter skill has followed him from Davidson. As he becomes more comfortable in Calipari’s system, he should get more shots.

Then there’s Oscar Tshiebwe. The 6-9 transfer from West Virginia has already posted four double-doubles. He’s averaging 16 rebounds a game. Little wonder Kentucky is currently second in the nation in offensive rebound percentage — offensive rebounds divided by opportunities — at 49.2 percent. (Texas Tech is No. 1 at 50 percent.)

4. Physical play is a concern

Here’s Calipari on Monday: “The biggest worry I have is I’m watching games, the physicalness of the games that I’m watching. . . . I’m seeing really physical play. My question is can we play that way?”

This team has length, but outside of Tshiebwe, not a lot of bulk. Freshman Daimion Collins is long and very lean. Keion Brooks is savvy, but not a bruiser. A shoulder injury has limited Jacob Toppin to one game. His imminent return should help. Same for Lance Ware, who’s nursing an ankle problem.

Still, as Calipari said Monday, “We’ve got to screen better. What’s that? Toughness. Go knock somebody’s head off like you’re getting your head knocked off.”

Kenpom ranks UK 32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s better than last year’s 38th. But it’s not the number Calipari wants.

5. All this comes with a disclaimer

Outside of the opening-game loss to Duke, Kentucky hasn’t played anybody. Jeff Sagarin’s computer ranks UK’s strength of schedule at 279 out of 358 teams. Here is Pomeroy’s rankings of the Cats’ last four foes — Robert Morris 290, Mount St. Mary’s 295, Ohio 101, Albany 302.

Calipari calls them “tune-up” games. The pandemic robbed last year’s team of such confidence-builders. And we saw the result. Still, it’s difficult to make definitive judgments on a team that to this point has played such inferior competition.

One thing we do know: Many UK fans see no reason to make the trip to Rupp Arena to watch “tune-up” games. Their fannies are seated at home, not in Rupp.

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s victory over winless Albany

Box score from Kentucky basketball’s victory over Albany

Kentucky prevails, but Calipari laments Albany ‘playing harder than us’

Kellan Grady goes from ‘crappy job’ to ‘making an impact’ for Kentucky