Kentucky hosts North Carolina tomorrow, and if you’re thinking it might be kind of fun to watch, say, Terrence Jones go up against John Henson, I’m right there with you. This is a great match-up, even if the Tar Heels’ loss to UNLV last weekend has deprived tomorrow’s game of some of its Game of the Millennium status.
The Wildcats beat Kansas by ten in Madison Square Garden a couple weeks ago, and a few days after that Old Dominion managed to hang with John Calipari‘s team for about 35 minutes on a neutral floor in Connecticut before also losing by ten. Otherwise UK’s logged a lot of possessions while sitting on comfortable leads, up to and including last night’s 81-59 win over St. John’s in Lexington.
The good news is we can still learn things from these possessions, even if they were recorded in lopsided games. Look at Wisconsin. The fact that the Badgers could whomp Kennesaw State by an especially fierce margin even by Kennesaw State standards (54 points) turned out to have predictive value after all. Ask these very same Tar Heels about their close brush with a home loss the other night.
Besides, the reason these games are lopsided in the first place is that Kentucky happens to be pretty good at basketball, especially on defense. Throughout his career Calipari has recruited the nation’s top players and somehow convinced them to buckle down and play amazing D. True, last year did represent something of a blip: UK was very good on defense, but only “very good” and certainly not Alabama-good.
This year already looks like it will represent a return to the old Calipari ways on D. Opponents have managed just 0.77 points per possession, and no one’s scored a point per trip against UK. (Portland holds the current record: 0.91 points per possession in their 87-63 loss to the Cats in Lexington last Saturday. Eric Reveno, I salute you!) And as if to make things easy for you, the viewer of tomorrow’s game, Kentucky has concentrated all of their defensive excellence into just one category: defending shots. Everything else — rebounding, forcing turnovers, etc. — is just what you’d see from a normal team, but when it comes to forcing misses UK’s on another planet. This year opponents have made just 33 percent of their twos and 27 percent of their threes.
Give a lot of the credit for that first number to 6-10 freshman Anthony Davis, who’s blocking an absurd 17 percent of opponents’ twos during his minutes. Even better he’s doing it without fouling — this kid can be on the floor whenever Calipari wishes.
The Cats are pretty fair at offense too, of course, scoring 1.17 points per trip to date and doing so with a remarkably balanced six-player rotation. Behold:
%Min %Shots OR% DR% FTM-FTA Pct 2PM-2PA Pct 3PM-3PA Pct Jones 75.0 22.3 7.0 17.0 25-36 69.4 30-60 50.0 7-11 63.6 Lamb 74.6 20.8 3.2 9.8 25-28 89.3 17-37 45.9 14-29 48.3 Davis 66.4 18.4 12.7 20.6 19-36 52.8 36-51 70.6 0-1 0.0 Kidd-Gilchrist 72.1 19.2 7.3 14.6 21-28 75.0 22-46 47.8 5-13 38.5 Teague 75.4 19.0 2.1 5.9 10-18 55.6 22-46 47.8 7-15 46.7 Miller 71.3 16.8 10.1 8.4 9-11 81.8 18-30 60.0 5-21 23.8
Outside of Syracuse you very rarely see an elite team’s shots distributed this evenly. For instance last year in Lexington Brandon Knight and Jones both carried much larger loads on offense than anything we see from a single Kentucky player this season. So doff your cap to Jones, who’s accepted a big reduction in shots this year, yet has kept his scoring average right where it was previously thanks to some bold tinkering with accuracy as a sophomore.
At some point this season Kentucky will actually play a close game (amazing, I know) and when that happens you’ll see UK fans grow visibly apprehensive if any player not named “Doron Lamb,” “Michael Kidd-Gilchrist,” or “Darius Miller” gets sent to the line. Meantime enjoy this team for what it is. A vintage Memphis-era Calipari defense, with a very good Kentucky-era offense too.