Why Kentucky basketball fell from No. 1 to Big Dance bubble; fact-checking anonymous coach’s UK barbs
The NCAA tournament in Kentucky is looking to life support after Saturday’s 75-68 loss to Georgia. Kentucky is just 16-9 overall and 7-5 in SEC play. According to KenPom, this is far from the team that opened the season and is considered the best team in the country.
“They have a staffing issue,” said one anonymous SEC coach. Athletic Seth Davis. “They just don’t have such explosive players. Cason Wallace was a really good replacement for them as point guard. When you have it, it’s three guys who can throw the ball along with CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves. They need these guys to stretch the defense. Oscar Chibwe is still going to get what he gets, but they still haven’t been able to come up with a solution when the teams shut down his man for 40 minutes. He doesn’t know how to defend it. If Fredrik and Reeves don’t get three-point shots, Tshibwe’s chances will narrow. The teams game plan is to get these guys out of the three-point line. When all three of these guys are throwing, they can beat anyone.”
Kentucky is just 1-7 in Quad 1 games, and a home loss to South Carolina adds an ugly Quad 4 failure to the Cats’ fleeting resume.
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Let’s check the facts raised by the opposing coach by diving into the Kentucky analytics.
Quote: “They have a staffing issue. They just don’t have such explosive players.”
Kentucky feels like a stone’s throw away from being really super dangerous. Unfortunately, one of those figures was on the list last year and he moved to Providence after riding a pine tree puzzled. A nightmarish forward like Bryce Hopkins would be the perfect fit for this Kentucky squad. The lineup possibilities are endless and Kentucky can play multiple ways to counter whoever they face. With Chibwe on the bench, the Hopkins-Jacob Toppin frontcourt can be a bit cramped, but there are some interesting defensive plans that Kentucky could use.
Instead of, Kentucky can only watch from afar as Hopkins grows into the star that many knew he could become. It had to happen in Kentucky. Instead, it’s happening in the Big East. Hopkins is averaging 16.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 37% from downtown, and he is on the list of the East’s top players of the year. Injuries have been a big problem for Kentucky this season. Antonio Reeves and Chris Livingston are the only players in the rotation to play all 25 games this season. But a ton of teams across the country have had injury problems. Kentucky is not immune to the traumatic beetle. There’s a reason why the strongest SEC team (Alabama) is racing for the conference crown. Kentucky has not gained enough quality depth for 2022-2023.
Fact Check: True.
2. Ball defense
Quote: “They still can’t come up with a solution when teams shield the ball from their man for 40 minutes. He doesn’t know how to defend himself.”
The Kentucky attack really wasn’t a problem. Since January 1, Kentucky has been ranked 30th in the nation for offensive effectiveness, according to Bart Torvik. This is a defense that has recently been completely wrecked. Kentucky has been ranked 166th in the nation with a defensive effectiveness rating of 103.9 since the calendar flipped to 2023. Many opponents have had huge success attacking Kentucky with balls specifically aimed at Chibwe.
So what do the Kentucky synergy numbers say?
- Kentucky ranks ninth in the SEC rankings, awarding .769 points for possession to opposing players. It ranks 45th percentile nationally
- Kentucky is ranked 11th in the SEC rankings, which allows it to rack up a whopping 1,178 points for possession. It ranks 11th percentile nationally.
According to Synergy, Arkansas scored 32 of 88 points against Kentucky using balls.
“We knew their coverage (wasn’t) that good,” Arkansas defenseman Davonte “Devo” Davis said. “Just knowing Oscar wasn’t up to par in pick and roll, we knew we wanted to just keep attacking the net and feed the big players running to the paint.”
The quotes about Chibwe defending against balls are pretty vicious, whether they’re on the scoresheet or not. But this is not some new tactic.
There is definitely some psychological warfare going on as opposing coaches pick and roll again and again against Chibwe. Forcing him to defend tires him out and can limit his offensive effectiveness. Also, it’s easy to see how frustration levels rise as teams continue to achieve such success. Chibwe starts pushing at both ends of the court and mistakes are inevitable.
The best thing a defender can do is to make an attacker think. When the ball carrier has to think about not covering the ball with the screen, it usually gives the defense time to get back into position and recover. Big players like Chibwe will always have a hard time defending balls because they often have to try and stop two guys at the same time, and defenders in modern basketball have more space and are just as skillful as ever.
But the best pick-and-roll defenders can fool opposing defenders into making the wrong decision by using active hands and quick feet. It’s just not happening with Tshiebwe right now. His rotations are late and the rest of his teammates are not up to the task. Kentucky’s weak side’s help was usually late against Arkansas. The Wildcats’ perimeter defenders hugged those who didn’t shoot instead of hitting the lane, and the Arkansas skaters spent the field day diving stress-free to the front of the hoop for rim swing or free throws.
Guards don’t have to think about protecting Kentucky from balls, and the good ones take it apart.
Fact Check: True.
3. Floor shrinkage
Quote: “If Fredrik and Reeves don’t get three-point shots, the chances for Tshibwe really narrow.”
Reeves and Fredrick are not the best players in Kentucky, but the most important in the UK. According to Pivot Analysis, Kentucky leads the opposition by 20.91 points per 100 possessions when Reeves and Fredrik are on the court together. Kentucky is averaging 125.48 points per 100 possessions with Fredrick and Reeves in SEC play. Chibwe is at his best when he plays with both Fredrik and Reeves.
But Fredrik missed the game against Georgia due to a cracked rib and is officially listed as a day. This is a big problem because Kentucky doesn’t have depth to make up for it. There is SO much pressure on Reeves and Fredrick to hit 3s because, as the opposing SEC coach hinted, Kentucky didn’t hit the required number of shots.
The two-man Reeves-Fredrick lineup had the most success of any Kentucky combination all year. Fredrick’s recovery is paramount to Kentucky’s future success.
If Fredrik continues to lose time, Reeves should be a frequent player in Calipari. Kentucky played him 40 minutes against Georgia. This must go on. He’s just determined to score, and the Kentucky basketball team is much better with him on the court.
Reeves’ distribution during the SEC game according to Pivot Analysis:
|Reeves in play (491 possessions)||120.77 attack rating||126.84 defensive rating||+12.6 net rating|
|Reeves on the bench (252 possessions)||101.47 attacking rating||126.84 defensive rating||-25.37 net rating|
Kentucky was brutal during the SEC game when Reeves was on the bench and pretty solid when he was in the game.
Fact check: True