Amidst the uncertainty of a pandemic, it’s hard to nitpick at the issues of young, inexperienced college basketball teams who are struggling in the early days of this shotgun-started season.
On the other hand, Duke and Kentucky are both .500 or worse, so of course we’re going to cover them. Duke’s two losses have come at the hands of two of college basketball’s twenty best teams and the Blue Devils themselves rank No. 11 according to KenPom. There are certainly issues to iron out in Durham—it’s not every year that Duke loses twice at Cameron before Christmas after all—but those look more like speed bumps than major issues.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has lost three straight games. First, a home date with a Richmond team that figures to be a tournament bidder, yet was still an Atlantic-10 team winning in Rupp Arena. Next, the Cats lost their Champions Classic game to an uneven Kansas team, who shot 29.9 percent from the field against Kentucky. And finally, Big Blue had its doors blown off by a previously winless Georgia Tech squad.
Kentucky teams under John Calipari are often young and can take time to gel. Many have an early season blunder or issue. None have skidded like this team. Kentucky hasn’t lost three in a row since 2018 and hasn’t done so prior to January 1 since Billy Gillespie was the head coach in Lexington in 2008. December 6 is the earliest date Kentucky has suffered its third loss of the season since 2013, and this season started three weeks late!
It doesn’t take long watching or studying this Kentucky team to see that its issues are not on the defensive end of the floor. The Wildcats are top 20 in defensive efficiency, thanks in large part to the incredible length on the roster. KenPom pegs Kentucky as the 4th tallest team in college basketball. Seven of the nine players in Calipari’s rotation right now are 6-foot-6 or taller, with both point guards measuring a noteworthy 6-foot-3. The Cats are quick to passing lanes, winning on the glass, and making shots difficult for opponents. Freshman Isaiah Jackson has been a sparkplug on defense, with a top 20 block rate in the nation. His eight blocks against Kansas changed the Jayhawks offensive attack completely.
The offensive end of the floor, however, has been a mess. This is not incredibly out of character for early season Calipari teams as they sort out an offensive identity and scoring hierarchy. Most, if not all, past Kentucky teams have been able to find their way, but they often did so through high-level guard play or an unquestioned top offensive option. It’s not abundantly clear that this year’s Cats have either of those.
Instead, Kentucky has been plagued by three key issues in the early season. If they are unable to straighten them out, these Wildcats may not have the SEC Champion and Final Four ceiling that’s expected of Calipari and company every year in Lexington.
Even for a young team, these Kentucky Wildcats have been, for lack of a better word, wild with the ball this season. Big Blue ranks 28th in the nation in turnovers per game this year, within the top 8th percentile of all of Division I.
This problem is not isolated to one or two players. Kentucky has five players averaging two or more turnovers per game, with all five of those players recording more turnovers than assists this season. Only senior transfer point guard Davion Mintz has been able to avoid the 2.0 turnover per game barrier among Kentucky’s top six rotation players.
Although the blame for turnovers can be spread around to many, freshman point guard Devin Askew has been particularly troublesome with the ball. His turnover rate through four games is over 44 percent, more than double the national average. Through four games, Askew has turned the ball over 13 times, compared to just 8 assists and 19 shot attempts.
Worst of all, Kentucky’s turnover problems have included dreaded live ball turnovers. Certainly dead ball turnovers, like offensive fouls, traveling violations, or out of bounds calls, are harmful to an offense. Yet the live ball variety can be even more taxing to a team. Tom Izzo has taken to calling them “turnovers for touchdowns”, comparing their effect to football’s deadly “pick six” plays. Kentucky’s opponents are recording a steal on over 13 percent of possessions, 279th lowest in Division I.
Georgia Tech had 15 steals against the Cats, leading to a bevvy of transition opportunities. No matter how good Kentucky plays defensively, the Wildcats can’t survive giving their opponent that many advantageous looks.
Shooting and Spacing
Even when Kentucky isn’t turning the ball over, the Cats are unable to find the right looks at the rim. Some of that is due to fluky shooting stats that should progress toward the mean. With that being said, Kentucky’s shooting thus far has been absolutely dreadful.
The Wildcats have managed just 25.8 percent from outside the arc, well below the national average to date (33.0). Only three Kentucky players have hoisted more than 10 threes so far this season, BJ Boston, Terrence Clark, and Davion Mintz. Those three have combined to make 11 of their 46 attempts, a putrid 23.9 percent. Freshmen Boston and Clark have each taken more than three long balls per game and made less than a quarter of those tries.
Those two players each play more than 80 percent of Kentucky’s minutes, joined most often by a point guard (neither Mintz or Askew has shot well to date) and one or both of the Wildcat big men, Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Jackson. It’s left things clogged and congested, with little room for offensive creation. Even when one of Kentucky’s talented players has an advantageous match-up, there are help defenders at the ready, sagging off the cold shooters around the arc.
BJ Boston as the top scoring option
Brandon Boston Jr. came to Kentucky as a top five recruit and by all accounts is slated to be selected very early in the 2021 NBA Draft. He certainly has the physical tools to be an elite player. He is a 6-foot-7 wing who moves fluidly with the ball in his hands.
So far this season, however, he has been miscast at the lead scoring option on this Kentucky team. Boston leads Kentucky in scoring with 14.5 points per game, but does so inefficiently. His points per game are matched by 14.5 field goal attempts per game. Boston is just 3 for 18 from outside the arc, launching 4.5 shots from long range per game, compared to just 2.8 free throw attempts per game.
His lack of downhill aggressiveness has hurt the Wildcats. Boston isn’t getting to the free throw line with any frequency and hasn’t been a reliable catalyst for offense. He’s found just four teammates for an assist in four games, but has turned the ball over ten times already.
This isn’t meant to be a referendum on Boston’s chances to be effective in college or as a pro. Many of those criticisms are easily corrected issues. Kentucky needs Boston to be more selective about which 3-pointers he’s attempting, look to attack the paint more regularly, and draw contact more often.
While Boston’s game evolves, Kentucky would be wise to run more of its offensive possessions through Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr in the post. Even without the spacing afforded to big men who are surrounded by shooters, Sarr has been adept at scoring in the paint this season, posting the highest true shooting percentage for Kentucky this season.
Looking at these problems in mid-December doesn’t tell us too much about how Kentucky will fare in March. Kentucky is bound to shoot better and control the ball better in the coming months. Calipari will start to find the adjustments that make his offense flow more smoothly. He’s confident in his team, particularly their shooting prowess:
It’s not surprising to see this team taking time to figure things out. No player who has played more than one minute for Big Blue this season played for Kentucky last season. The ten players that Calipari is relying on are three transfers and seven freshmen. When faced with the schedule the Cats have played, it’s not unfathomable that Kentucky is 1-3.
If Calipari and the Cats are unable to adjust before SEC play is slated to begin on December 29, then surprise would settle in. This team is too talented to not compete for a conference title or Final Four run. Should they fail to do so, we’ll need to re-visit this discussion and change our perceptions about this current crop of Wildcats.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.