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January 8, 2010
Around the Rim
Undefeated Kentucky Still Focusing on Improvement

by John Perrotto

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John Calipari believes this week could decide the fate of Kentucky’s season, even though the Wildcats play just one game that seems imminently winnable.

“We have such a young team and I think people lose sight of that because of our record,” Calipari said. “This is our last week to really improve. From this point on, it’s just experience we’ll be gaining. We’re not going to be able to change things because there are too many games coming at us. This is the week where we can really work on a lot of things in practice and grow. It’s going to go a long way in determining just how much better we play the rest of the way.”

It would be impossible for Kentucky to improve on its 15-0 record. The Wildcats are ranked No. 8 by Basketball Prospectus and are No. 3 in The Associated Press poll.

However, Calipari sees plenty of room for improvement in the Wildcats’ play as they get set to host Georgia (8-5), which is making good strides under first-year coach Mark Fox, in their SEC opener on Saturday afternoon.

“We’re very lucky to be undefeated,” Calipari said. “We should be 9-6. I tell our team that, too. They know we’re very fortunate to still be undefeated.”

The Pomeroy statistics confirm Calipari’s belief that Kentucky has been lucky. The Wildcats rank 19th in luck at .09 but they are also 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency (116.3) and 31st in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.6).

What has stood out most about Kentucky has been the play of its amazing freshmen class, primarily guard John Wall. He is averaging 17.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 33.5 minutes a game, and his 38.5 assist rate is 12th in the nation. Wall’s backcourt mate, fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe has a 10.2/2.5/3.1/28.4 line.

“Everyone knew that John was a premier player coming into our program but the one thing that surprised me is his willingness to take the big shot and usually make the big shot,” Calipari said. “I saw him play a lot of AAU ball but I never saw that part of him, where he wanted to make the big play. However, he has done it right from the start here.

“John and Eric are both so talented but they still have a long ways to go. They combined for nine turnovers (in the 71-62 victory over Louisville last Saturday). You’re not going to win doing that, though we did, which again shows how lucky we are.”

Another freshman, center DeMarcus Cousins, makes up for most of the mistakes Wall and Bledsoe make as he has been one of the nation’s top players. He ranks first in offensive rebounding percentage (24.7), second in percentage of possessions used (36.7), third in percentage of shots taken (37.6) and defensive rebounding percentage (30.1), fourth in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (9.1) and 36th in block percentage (9.8). His averages are 15.4/9.8/0.8/20.1.

“He’s 6'11", 270 pounds and he gives us a physical post presence,” Calipari said. “When we throw it in to him, the other team has got to make choices. Do they double him? How do they guard him? He wasn’t making free throws early but now if you foul him, he makes them. Really, his only weakness is that he thinks he is a 6'11" guard and turns the ball over because of it. He’s a freshman, though. Once he figures out he’s a big man, the turnovers will go down, too.”

Junior forward Patrick Patterson has been overshadowed by all the talented newcomers but he is having another fine season at 16.7/8.3/1.1/31.4. Like Cousins, he is also all over the Pomeroy statistical leaders, ranking eighth in offensive rating (137.4), 18th in effective field-goal percentage (66.0), 26th in turnover rate (8.0), 42nd in True Shooting Percentage (65.6) and 83rd in offensive rebounding percentage (13.6).

Those kinds of numbers have some of the faithful in Lexington dreaming of Kentucky becoming the nation’s first unbeaten team since Indiana in 1975-76.

“It’s very difficult to think that far ahead,” Calipari said. “We’re going to be the Super Bowl for most teams we play. We’re going to walk into sellouts every time we play and teams are going to play as well as against us as they have all year. It was that way my last five years at Massachusetts and my last five years at Memphis. Every game is a big game. But I always tell the kids it a day-to-day thing, rip off the rearview mirror, stay in the moment, worry about us and do what we have to do to be better.”

Gaudio Likes Deacons' Numbers

Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio embraces tempo-free statistics. He has www.kenpom.com bookmarked on his web browser and is familiar with the work of this site and our publications.

Thus, it was no surprise Gaudio used some advanced metrics in providing reasons for why the Demon Deacons are off to a surprising 11-2 start and ranked No. 20 by BP. He is especially proud that his team’s 40.0 effective field-goal percentage allowed ranks fourth in the nation. Wake Forest is also the country’s best three-point defensive team, allowing just 24.3 percent.

“We guard pretty well,” Gaudio said. “That’s who we are. If we keep defending and rebounding like we have been, we’ll be in all our games. If we’re fortunate, we’ll pull our share of games out.”

Gaudio uses many of the same defensive principles that former Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin and Washington State coach Dick Bennett employed. Ironically, Bennett’s son, Tony, is now a rival coach of Gaudio’s in the ACC as he took over at Virginia prior to this spring.

“We try to be cognizant of the scouting report, understand the opponents’ personnel, who to close out hard against, who to close out easy against,” Gaudio said. “We try to pressure the ball and force it into our pack. I think if you’re cognizant of who are the better shooters and focus your attention on them, you’re improving your odds of stopping the other team.”

Sophomore forward Al-Farouq Aminu is 24th in offensive rebounding percentage (16.0), 54th in percentage of possessions used (30.3) and 86th in defensive rebounding percentage (23.0) with 17.4/11.5/1.9/29.6 averages. Freshman guard C.J. Harris is off to a good start as he is 66th in free throw rate (71.1), 67th in True Shooting Percentage (64.4) and 89th in Offensive Rating (123.2) with a line of 11.9/2.2/1.4/26.8.

Wake Forest won its conference opener on Dec. 20 by beating North Carolina State 67-59 and returns to ACC action Saturday night when it visits Miami (Fla.) on ESPNU. The Hurricanes have also been one of the nation’s biggest surprises as they are 14-1 with their lone loss coming at Boston College in their ACC opener on Dec. 6.

Rhode Island's Start Surprising

On the subject on surprises, Rhode Island certainly qualifies as the Rams are 12-1 going into their Atlantic 10 opener on Sunday afternoon against Temple (12-3, 1-0). It will be quite the marquee matchup in the A-10 as Rhode Island is ranked No. 21 by BP and Temple is ranked No. 17 by BP and No. 21 by AP.

Rhode Island coach Jim Baron believes his team is battle tested following a non-conference schedule that included road victories over Davidson, Boston College, Drexel and Akron along with a neutral-site win over Oklahoma State at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

“We are not scared to play anybody, anytime, anywhere and our whole conference is that way,” Baron said. “We’ve played at some very tough places. After playing at Drexel, I see why no one ever wants to go in there because you’re probably not going to come out with a win very often. When you play quality opponents on the road, it’s a good thing. It makes your kids mentally tougher and your program stronger.”

Rhode Island is winning despite losing its top two scorers from last season (Jimmy Baron and Kahiem Seawright) to graduation. However, the Rams have made up for those losses by getting solid production from three seniors: guard Keith Cothran (16.5/3.3/1.6/29.8), forward Delroy James (13.5/5.8/1.6/27.2) and forward Lamonte Ulmer (12.2/7.2/1.0/30.1). Both Rhode Island point guards are among the national leaders in assist percentage as starter Marquise Jones is 20th with 36.1 and backup Stevie Mejia is 52nd with 33.3, helping the Rams rank 21st with a 114.1 adjusted offensive efficiency rating.

“I don’t think many people would have given us any kind of credit to be where we are right now at the start of the season,” Baron said. “I was confident we would have a good team but I can understand why people would have questions because we lost so much scoring. On paper, it didn’t look we had the strongest of teams compared to some other years but our team has a lot of character, which comes from the upperclassmen. They’ve worked hard and been very focused.”

O'Neill Tries to Keep USC Focused After Sanctions

Southern California’s 54-53 loss at Stanford on Wednesday night ended an eight-game winning streak but wasn’t totally unexpected. The Trojans were playing for the first time since the university announced last Sunday that it was enacting a self-imposed ban on post-season play this season in connection with allegations that O.J. Mayo violated NCAA rules by receiving improper benefits while playing at USC in 2007-08.

The Trojans are 10-5 and 2-1 in the Pac-10 and were beginning to look like the team to beat in the conference before Sunday’s announcement. However, first-year coach Kevin O’Neill insists he will not let his team feel sorry.

“We're not victims here,” he said. “We're just going to have the best season we can have. This will get easier every day that goes by. It’s one of those things. It’s hard to deal with, but in the big picture you just have to move forward.”

USC was certainly moving forward after a 1-4 start as it rattled off eight straight victories, including a 77-55 dismantling of visiting Tennessee on Dec. 19. Then the good feeling abruptly changed when O’Neill had to gather his team and tell them they would not play beyond the March 6 regular-season finale at Arizona.

“It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do,” O'Neill said. “You're talking about a guy who's been fired four or five times but this was much harder than ever getting fired.”

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Around the Rim (01/05)
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