How the Hell Do We Know What to Expect from Kentucky?
It's hard to know what this Kentucky team is going to do in March.
It’s difficult to project the ceiling of an inexperienced (and highly talented) team like like this one. The lineup shifts and injuries have left a super young team — which are already prone to bouts of volatility, production wise — to be even more difficult to project.
It could be argued (and I would) that it’s only reasonable to assess the progression of this Kentucky team when it's been equipped with Jarred Vanderbilt, whose rebounding impact has been as severe as as a bologna sandwich burp in a crowded elevator. Kentucky's offensive/defensive identity has radically changed with him in the lineup.
As a complete roster, we’ve essentially seen 14 games, all in conference, to give us an idea of what this team will be going forward, and even then those games were subjected to a rapid-acclimation plan for Jarred Vanderbilt. Kentucky was 7-7 in those games, and I want to take a look at some of the trends that have occurred during that time.
ROCK THE MIC LIKE A VANDO
There's a direct correlation between (albeit not causal) Kentucky's best offensive lineup becoming acclimated and Kentucky also losing games.
With the team operating as it previous had, they were able to eek out wins against Georgia and LSU. Whether or not this motivated a false sense of security is unclear, but you can see that Vanderbilt's minutes slowly increased during the most difficult portion of the schedule, against four of the more talented teams in the league: Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Auburn.
This caused a bit of an identity crisis for Kentucky during the middle portion of the conference schedule, and I think people tend to discount that. Let's address that, shall we?
GOTSA WATER DEM PLANTS
This has been the story of the middle and back half of the conference schedule, for these kiddos. Defensively, this team has steadily improved over the course of the year, and there's been a clear upswing in effort on that end of the floor. Offensively, they showed growth, but only during that increase in Vanderbilt's minutes was it as a complete team.
There was a clear line of offensive identity that you could trace through the season, and it goes a bit like this:
So let's talk about that usage.
In this sample size that we've all agreed on (WE'VE ALL AGREED ON IT), the usage numbers at Kentucky's point of attack tell a story.
A few things jump out.
First of all, it's clear that a deliberate focus on Knox-specific sets keep the team on a healthy pace. Kentucky's offensive rating during that time was 114.67, with a high water mark of 133.8 against Missouri at home.
Knox's usage rate in that particular game: 42.7.
Kentucky's next two most impressive wins saw offensive ratings of 124.3 (Knox 28.1) against Arkansas and 122.1 against West Virginia (Knox 28.3).
KEEP. KNOX. INVOLVED.
The more this kid gets his number called, the better Kentucky plays. This is so painfully and abundantly clear. The stats here just prove what most casual basketball fans could observe in five minutes: oh you mean that 6'9" guy with an insane wingspan that can score in basically every imaginable scenario should get more stuff ran for him?!
Secondly, encouragement for Kentucky's ceiling: there are multiple instances of Quade Green having some of the lowest usage-to-highest-offensive-rating stats on the team. It likely opens the door to an increased role for him on offense, which is a potentially positive variable for Kentucky's ceiling going forward. Big shot makers are absolutely crucial in March, and it's possible that Quade is the strongest candidate to be that dude for Kentucky.
Lastly: better shots for Diallo. If I am Calipari's staff, I'm sending Diallo to a tattoo artist to have 'LAYUPS OR OPEN THREES' tattooed on the inside of his eyelids. Off-balance midrange jumpers, contested threes and baseline floaters are just off the board at this point. They're basically turnovers for Kentucky.
EXTINGUISH THE FLAME OF BLAME
A common complaint among Kentucky fans down the stretch has been a plea for Quade Green to initiate the offense. While we saw a pretty clear statistical argument for his involvement, Quade's initiation of the offense is not necessarily the recipe for a more efficient attack.
Yes, it's true, Kentucky's offense does have a tendency to breakdown when a majority of the sets are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pick-and-rolls... but that doesn't tell the whole story. It's not the pick-and-rolls themselves, but the decisions that Shai makes after the screen action that dictate Kentucky's offensive efficiency. When the ball stops being kicked to the wing and swung, they stagnate.
In the game against Ole Miss (a game Kentucky won by 18), Shai started the offense on 35 possessions where Quade was also on the floor. Eleven of those possessions were sets designed for Knox, and nine of them were pick-and-rolls.
When it's winning time, the Shai high ball screen is a lethal weapon for Kentucky, so long as they don't lean on it so hard that they fall down and eat shit.
TIME & MATURITY WILL TELL
A ten-loss team has not won a national championship in the last decade, but the losingest team in the last ten years to win a title (2014 Connecticut) beat the 2014 Kentucky squad that had 10 losses entering the tournament. A continued refinement of personality is not out of the question for these Cats. In fact, before the loss at Florida, it seemed likely.
That makes most of the top 25 Ken Pomeroy ratings difficult to interpret. Kentucky's the most inexperienced team in the country, and when you figure in the injuries they've had (Quade and Vanderbilt), their inexperience is probably the most glaring of the Calipari era, and certainly the highest in the top 25 of the country.
Will they continue to improve? Will they flame out in the first weekend of the tournament?
You tell me. But I'd definitely have a difficult time betting against them.