Each week in this space, KUSports.com online editor Jesse Newell will take a statistical look at one of the 10 teams that has the best chance of taking this year’s NCAA title.
AP/Coaches Ranking: 2nd/2nd
KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 7th
Kentucky’s defense actually has emerged as a strength. The Wildcats are 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and just a few months ago, the Wildcats were hanging around in the mid-60s in the same statistic.
Defensively, the Wildcats are especially stingy inside, as opponents are hitting just 40.5 percent of their two-pointers (sixth nationally). UK also blocks 17.7 percent of its opponents’ two-point shot attempts (eighth nationally) and doesn’t foul often. In fact, Kentucky opponents shoot just 17.4 free throws per game.
Kentucky is 21st in adjusted offensive efficiency, giving the team the balance needed to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Wildcats are once again strongest inside, making 53 percent of their two-pointers (18th nationally) while grabbing offensive rebounds on 42.3 percent of their misses (third nationally).
Turnovers on both sides of the ball have to be a concern for Kentucky. The Wildcats average 15.1 turnovers per game, while forcing only 14.4 per contest. Neither number is terrible, but both numbers could stand improvement before the NCAA Tourney. UK also is extremely inexperienced, as Ken Pomeroy lists them as the 10th-youngest team in the country (out of 347 squads).
Kentucky also hasn’t been as productive offensively as of late, scoring less than one point per possession in three of its last eight contests. The Wildcats had failed to score one point per possession in only three of their first 19 games. I’m sure coach John Calipari also might be haunted a bit by the possibilities of taking a team late into the tournament with a below average free-throw percentage (67.4 percent) like the Wildcats have this year.
Players to watch
When looking at the advanced statistics, it’s easy to pick out Kentucky’s best player.
John Wall? Nope. Actually, it’s 6-foot-11 center DeMarcus Cousins.
Though Wall has been stealing the hype, Cousins has been having a National Player of the Year-type season without many people noticing.
Cousins gets offensive rebounds on 22.8 percent of UK’s missed shots when he’s in (second nationally) and also grabs 25.9 percent of the possible defensive rebounds (21st nationally). He draws 8.9 fouls per 40 minutes (second nationally), and on defense, he blocks 7.7 percent of the opposition’s two-point field-goal attempts (67th nationally). He also carries the biggest load for Kentucky’s offense, shooting on 32.2 percent of Kentucky’s possessions (39th nationally). The high volume of shots hasn’t hurt his percentage, as he’s still shooting 55.4 percent from two-point range.
Wall is most impressive in his assist total, as he gives out assists on 33.5 percent of his teammates’ made baskets when he’s in (39th nationally). Six-foot-9 junior Patrick Patterson, meanwhile, is one of UK’s best shooters, making 60.9 percent of his twos and 40.4 percent of his threes while turning it over just 28 times in 27 games.
Early in the season, I didn’t consider Kentucky a threat for the title because of its poor defense. Since then, the Wildcats have improved dramatically in that area, and as it stands, their balance should make them one of the favorites to win it all. Kentucky’s greatest strength is its inside play, and statistically, it’s Cousins — and not Wall — that provides the greatest matchup challenge for teams facing the Wildcats in the tournament.