Better Know An Opponent: Kentucky

The Gamecocks try to break a two game losing streak on Tuesday at 9pm as they travel to Lexington, Kentucky to take on the Kentucky Wildcats.  Kentucky has had what could be considered a down season by their heightened standard, but remains a top 20 opponent that will give opponents fits come March.

While they’ve suffered a few surprising losses – especially the game they dropped to Texas A&M in Rupp Arena on January 12th – the Wildcats remain very good on both offense and defense, and it will take one of Carolina’s best efforts of the season if they want to walk out with a victory.

Team

All numbers from KenPom.com

Four Factors USC O UK D UK O USC D NCAA
eFG 48.8
(148)
42.1
(9)
53.8
(21)
48.9
(199)
48.5
TO% 24.0
(322)
18.8
(256)
19.0
(103)
20.8
(156)
20.4
Oreb% 40.9
(4)
30.9
(132)
34.3
(92)
32.0
(174)
32
FTR 37.4
(135)
27.1
(26)
41.4
(48)
42.1
(298)
35.7
Adj. Tempo 66.7
(165)
69.7
(47)
66.4
Shooting USC O UK D UK O USC D NCAA
FT% 69.7
(154)
64.5
(302)
68.9
2P% 48.1
(145)
40.9
(8)
53.7
(15)
49.1
(233)
47.4
3P% 33.5
(171)
36.0
(73)
33.7
3PA% 31.5
(216)
26.9
(28)
28.9
(275)
31.6
(123)
32.9

There are worse match-ups out there for us.  For instance, Florida – they are an even worse match-up for us than Kentucky.  But Kentucky is a really, really bad match-up for us, and not just because they’re an excellent basketball team, and we frankly are not.

When Kentucky has the ball, they are looking to score by getting to the basket and either making a shot, drawing a foul, or both.  Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, when we defend, we are prone to allow teams to score easily from 2, foul, or both.  This does not bode well for our chances.

Otherwise, there aren’t enough advantages to see where the Gamecocks are going to get stops.  Kentucky does a better job of protecting the ball and getting to the glass than the Gamecocks do on this end.  Much like the Florida game, when our defense matches up against a good team, they simply don’t have a match-up advantage to exploit.  While our turnover rate has been improving in conference play, we’ll need to be well over 25 percent to have a chance, because we otherwise don’t seem to be able to stop teams (I still cannot believe Georgia scored 1.52 points per possession on non-turnover possessions against Carolina.  1.52 points per possession).

The Gamecock offense may actually be able to play their game somewhat effectively over the course of the evening, as the Wildcats aren’t likely to make us pay by creating turnovers or preventing us from grabbing offensive rebounds like other teams would.  Given how bad we’ve been at turning the ball over, and how much our offense thrives on offensive rebounding, this should be cause for hope (let’s put to the side for the moment that Kentucky has played a far more challenging schedule when compiling these numbers as compared to South Carolina).

But shooting.  Where the hell is South Carolina going to get points from against these guys, no matter how many additional chances they might have?  The Gamecocks struggle to score from 2 against most teams – Kentucky just shuts that down.  And they do it while not allowing 3PAs.  And they accomplish both these tasks while preventing teams from getting to the foul line.

We’ve talked a lot lately about the importance of shooting in basketball, a topic we somewhat overlook here at times.  But make no mistake – the problem on this evening will likely be that, no matter how many chances they get, the Gamecocks simply won’t be able to get the ball into the hoop, and they don’t seem capable of preventing Kentucky from putting the ball in the basket.  No matter how anything else goes (and it’s not as if there are key advantages for the Gamecocks to exploit in other areas, though they have a few slight edges), if we get run out of the gym on two-pointers again, it’ll be a long, long night.

Individual

 USC
%Min
%Poss
eFG%
OR%
DR%
ARate
TORate
FTM-FTA
2PM-2PA
3PM-3PA
Lakeem Jackson
76.0
17.2
61.0
9.7
16.0
16.1
25.1
16-48
83-137
2-4
Eric Smith
69.0
16.8
38.9
1.4
5.5
22.3
29.5
26-39
31-80
12-46
Mindaugas Kacinas
55.2
15.8
58.7
10.4
12.7
7.7
28.8
29-42
46-71
3-15
Brenton Williams
53.6
21.5
54.7
1.3
8.6
12.5
17.6
59-71
35-74
31-75
Brian Richardson
47.4
20.7
52.4
5.3
10.9
14.4
16.4
21-28
30-69
31-77
Bruce Ellington
44.2
23.1
43.0
2.8
8.2
14.5
30.1
20-34
34-81
12-40
RJ Slawson
41.2
17.9
45.3
14.2
14.3
8.5
22.7
32-45
31-65
2-10
Michael Carrera
39.1
26.5
48.3
15.7
24.3
8.2
20.9
52-67
51-110
3-5
Damien Leonard
28.8
19.4
37.8
6.3
13.1
6.5
25.0
9-13
10-32
13-46
Laimonas Chatkevicius
17.2
23.7
48.8
12.2
17.1
13.1
30.9
13-19
18-36
1-4
 UK
%Min
%Poss
eFG%
OR%
DR%
ARate
TORate
FTM-FTA
2PM-2PA
3PM-3PA
Archie Goodwin
80.5
27.2
45.7
5.3
10.7
18.7
20.4
95-141
91-194
11-41
Nerlens Noel
80.5
17.7
58.9
10.3
20.7
9.8
18.3
45-84
89-151
0-0
Julius Mays
77.5
15.0
49.7
2.2
7.5
15.9
14.7
32-39
21-54
38-103
Alex Poythress
63.4
23.0
64.7
9.9
17.4
3.3
23.0
71-100
84-131
10-22
Kyle Wiltjer
62.4
21.5
58.1
5.5
13.9
14.7
15.8
27-35
44-82
45-110
Ryan Harrow
56.6
22.2
44.6
2.3
6.7
21.9
16.9
25-41
53-118
14-48
Willie Cauley-Stein
40.1
18.9
62.1
12.8
17.1
10.1
16.2
13-38
54-87
0-0
Jarrod Polson
29.5
11.5
54.1
3.9
8.0
12.5
20.3
10-14
17-26
2-11

Deservedly or not, the guy you’ve likely heard the most about on this Kentucky team is Nerlens Noel, who sports one of the finest haircuts to show up in SEC athletics since Tanneyhill graced our sidelines.  Noel is a fine offensively player who does all of his damage in the paint, making tons of 2PAs and getting to the foul line often.

He doesn’t produce from the line as well as you’d want him to if you’re a UK fan, but a possession that gets him two shots still averages UK 1.072 points per possession, so it’s not as if he can’t still be relatively effective there, and that’s before we account for the potential that the miss is rebounded.  Even bad free throw shooters are pretty valuable to get to the line, with the possible exception of Lakeem Jackson (we kid because we care, Lakeem).

Of course, the story of Noel is his block percentage, which is frighteningly high at 12.9 percent (which is to say, 12.9 percent of the 2PAs taken by the opposition why Noel is playing are blocked by Noel.  That’s one of eight).  As Demetra noted earlier this week on Twitter, the Gamecocks have actually already faced two guys with even higher rates this season – Rhamel Brown (10th in the NCAA at 10.41%) of Manhattan blocked three shots in 30 minutes during our December victory over the Jaspers, and nationwide leader Chris Obekpa also blocked three against us in 25 minutes during the Johnnies’ destruction of Carolina in late November up in Queens.

Kentucky’s wing player, 6’7″ Alex Poythress, is a lot like Noel in that he buries a ton of 2s (his 64.7% eFG is 15th in the nation, and he derives that almost entirely through 2PAs) and gets to the foul line a ton.  Poythress and Noel also hammer the glass on both ends for the Wildcats, who rely on these two guys for most of their rebounding while getting the rest of the team out in space to transition to baskets (which shows up in their pace).

The other guy down low for Kentucky is Kyle Wiltjer, a 6’10” sophomore who must wonder if everyone left last year because of something he said.  He has an interesting profile in that he does a good job making 2PAs like the other post players, but actually takes more of his shots from 3PA, where he hits at a 40.9 percent rate.  The Gamecocks will need to be careful defensively to consider who guards Wiltjer, because while he’s a terrifically tall player whose inside game must be respected, it’s not the inside where he beats you.  Rather, he forces you to use one of your tallest interior players on the perimeter, which allows Noel and Poythress to hammer the glass.  Suffice to say, Kentucky is challenging to guard.

The Wildcats’ 6’4″ guard Archie Goodwin brings more of the same.  He’s a guy who uses a large percentage of their possessions and leads the team in scoring, though given his turnover rate and eFG, he wouldn’t be the worst guy to see Kentucky live and die through on the evening.  Even though he’s only 6’4″, he’s a lot like Noel in that he makes his living by making 2PAs and getting to the line.  He’s surprisingly non-threatening from outside, only attempting 41 3PAs this season, and hitting those at a 27 percent rate.

Rounding out Kentucky’s starting five is Julius Mays, a 6’2″ senior point guard who disappears offensively in a lot of ways, but takes good care of the basketball.  He has a surprisingly low assist rate, but Kentucky doesn’t particularly rely on assists – only 54 percent of their made field goals are assisted on, which just goes to show that it is full of guys who can get their own shot whenever they care.  His biggest contribution comes from burying shots from outside, as he’s hitting 36.9 percent of his over 100 3PMs on the season.

As an aside, Kentucky is exceptional in a number of ways.  They seldom substitute, as you can tell from the above – they play an eight-man rotation (Cauley-Stein is returning from injury, and his minutes will mean less for Harrow and Goodwin), and their bench only accounts for just over 25 percent of their minutes.  This is in stark contrast to the Gamecocks, whose non-starters account for almost 40 percent of our minutes, which comes in at 30th in the NCAA.

The Wildcats are also frighteningly (well, for any other team) young, with their effective experience coming in at only 0.84 years, ranking 338th in the nation.  That’s four freshmen, two sophomores, a junior, and a senior.  I sort of spite the latter two (Mays and Polson) for skewing the average.

But while young, they are tall – their players average 6’4.6″, and effectively, they play 4.6 inches taller than the average team.

For Carolina, it’s very difficult to see where they will create offense.  The only players hitting over 50 percent of their 2PAs this season are Jackson and Kacinas, but Kacinas hardly counts, as he picks his shots carefully, only taking 13.3 percent of the Gamecocks’ shots while he’s on the court.  Jackson isn’t much higher at 15.8 percent of shots, so each of these guys may be able to contribute, but they’ll need to do so at a slightly higher rate than they are at this point, given the struggles of the other guys on the floor.

Carrera continues to create his own shots rather adeptly, but needs to do a better job of converting them for the Gamecocks to have half a chance.  Carolina’s best hope may come from hoping our post players – Slawson, Kacinas, Chatkevicius, and Carrera – who have done a good job getting to the line this season, can trade fouls with Kentucky and get a few of their major contributors into foul trouble.

I have no reason to think that the bench players for Kentucky aren’t great, but we have no way of knowing – when Cauley-Stein was recently out with an injury, Kentucky didn’t find the minutes from other bench players, they just shifted more of the load onto their remaining seven contributors.  There’s no reason to think that the Gamecocks can execute this plan with any real success – we’re not great at drawing fouls, and Kentucky is good at avoiding foul trouble – but if I were going to venture a guess at our best chance of stealing a win on the road, I’d say getting some of their best players off the court for extended minutes, and getting our guys open looks at the basket from the line, is probably the way to go.

Projections

KenPom: Kentucky by 23 (4%)

TeamRankings: Kentucky 79-81 (4%)

Vegas: Kentucky by 18

Much like the Florida game, you should have no allusions about the likelihood of victory on Tuesday evening.  The Wildcats are a much better basketball team than the Gamecocks this season, and it’s not particularly close.

That’s not to say things can’t happen – we could play better, Kentucky could play worse, or that always beautiful “some combination thereof.”  But this is likely to be another hard lesson for the Gamecocks that simply shows this team isn’t playing at a level that will allow it to remain competitive against NCAA-bound teams.

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About marvinnedick

Blogging from the mid-Atlantic on Gamecock sports, as well as general musings on sports theory otherwise.
This entry was posted in 2012-13 Basketball, Better Know An Opponent, Game Previews, Kentucky and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Better Know An Opponent: Kentucky

  1. Gary says:

    I would probably feel some satisfaction(very little) if we could beat the point spread. A similar outcome to the Florida game would be another blow to the team’s confidence.

  2. Pingback: Shooting – and Kentucky – wins game, 77-55 |

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