Saturday, March 15, 2014

Kentucky 85 - 67 Louisiana St. (SEC Tournament) (Atlanta) (No. 2,134)

Well, I was really wrong about this game.  Coming into last night, Kentucky had played five mediocre games in a row -- close home wins against LSU and Alabama, bad losses to Arkansas and South Carolina, and a blowout loss at Florida.  Kentucky had also struggled in both of its games against LSU.  And I knew that the Tigers would enter this game with a lot of confidence.  Under those circumstances, I thought the Cats would be in for a long night.

At first my predictions appeared to be right, as LSU opened the game with back-to-back three-pointers, and then stormed out to an early 22-14 lead.  But then, for the first time since their victory at Ole Miss, the Wildcats' offense came back to life.  They closed the first half on a 28-10 run, and led 42-32 at the half.  To put that in perspective, here were the halftime scores of UK's last five games:

2/22:  Kentucky 35, LSU 32
2/27:  Arkansas 37, Kentucky 30
3/1:  S. Carolina 31, Kentucky 28
3/4:  Alabama 28, Kentucky 25
3/8:  Florida 49, Kentucky 28

After four straight games in which Kentucky scored 30 points or less in the first half, this time the Cats had put up 42.  And after four straight games were UK trailed at the half, the Cats had a 10-point lead.

LSU fought back, of course.  If you really want to see evidence that America's young people are up for a challenge, watch how hard SEC teams play against Kentucky.  UK went cold, and LSU trimmed the Cats' lead to 52-49 with about 11 minutes to go.  But then Alex Poythress (!) made only his seventh three-pointer of the year, and suddenly the Cats were off to the races again.  They finished the game on a 33-18 run, and won by 18.

I admit to being wrong, but I still think this was a very surprising result.  In 18 conference games, UK had only won twice by 18 points or more.  The Cats hadn't scored 85 points in regulation against an SEC opponent since they beat Mississippi State way back on January 8.

So what happened?  All week there was a lot of speculation over Coach Calipari's statement that he had found a "tweak" that would jump start UK's offense.  I have no idea whether UK was actually pursuing a different strategy or not.  But let's compare the Cats' offense last night to its performance the last time UK played LSU.  Here was the UK offense at Rupp Arena against LSU on February 22:

27-58 from two-point range (46.6 percent)
1-9 from three-point range (11.1 percent)
20-26 from the line (76.9 percent)
5 assists
11 turnovers
In that game, the Cats out-rebounded LSU 43-40.

Here is how the Cats did last night:

19-38 from two-point range (50.0 percent)
7-17 from three-point range (41.2 percent)
26-41 from the line (63.4 percent)
15 assists
9 turnovers
UK out-rebounded LSU 48-32

It is unusual for UK to shoot so well from the outside -- the Cats normally make only 31.9 percent of their three-point shots.  But on the other hand, UK was even worse than usual from the line (they normally make 68.3 percent).

Looking at these numbers, and watching the game, it seemed to me the biggest difference last night was that the Cats were much more aggressive than they have been in recent weeks.  If they had an open three-pointer, they took it.  If they missed, they chased down the rebound and started over.  LSU is generally a pretty good rebounding team, and UK just pounded them on the boards last night.  By not going so far into the shot clock, or trying to make passes that weren't there, the Cats reduced their turnovers.  And many of their free throws came from put-backs by Randle (who went 9-16 from the line).

I don't know how often this approach can work.  But I do think it plays to UK's strengths.  UK has a lot of really tall guys who are good at rebounding.  They don't have guys who can shoot very well or make eye-popping passes.  Instead of trying to be subtle, their best bet is probably to throw the ball up on the glass and hope for the best.  If the ball goes in, great.  If it doesn't, go get it and start over.  Randle, Dakari Johnson, and Willie Cauley-Stein are all more likely to score off of a put-back than by catching a pass and making some type of offensive  move.

Today should be a really entertaining day in the SEC tournament.  All four of the top seeds made it to the semi-finals.  Tennessee, which has been on fire lately, gets its third shot at Florida.  Georgia, which has won 9 of its last 11 games -- and is probably playing for its tournament life -- gets a second shot at UK.  I hope that the Cats bring the same level of intensity we saw last night.


  1. It would be interesting to know teams' three-point percentages when their guys shoot after dribbling, when their guys shoot immediately after receiving a pass from the perimeter or when they shoot immediately after receiving a pass from the inside.