Friday, January 16, 2015

Kentucky 86 - 37 Missouri (No. 2,156)

Consider what the last few years have been like for Dominique Hawkins.

In the spring of 2013, Hawkins is a senior at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky.  He leads his team on a stunning run through the KHSAA playoffs that ends with a miraculous, last-second, come-from-behind victory over Louisville Ballard.  Meanwhile, UK's season ends in the NIT.

Hawkins then goes to Kentucky, where he is part of a class that includes Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison Twins.  Hawkins gets a decent amount of playing time at the beginning of the year, but spends almost the entire SEC part of the schedule on the bench.  Meanwhile, the team struggles, finishing 12-6 in the SEC and losing three of its last four games.  But then the team goes on a run and finds itself in the Sweet 16 against U of L.  In that game -- for the first time in almost three months -- Hawkins plays 15 critical minutes.  He remains in the rotation the rest of the way, and even gets to play seven minutes in the national title game.

Now it's Hawkins's sophomore year, and the Cats have brought in another array of excellent freshmen -- including guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker.  Coach Calipari has so much talent that he launches two separate "platoons" of five players each.  The Cats crush most of their opponents, but Hawkins plays mostly in garbage time.  Alex Poythress is hurt, and Coach Cal decides to break up the platoons, going with a nine-man rotation instead.  The Cats keep winning -- but something isn't right, as UK struggles in their first two conference games against Ole Miss and Texas A & M.

At this point, like Santa turning to Rudolph, Coach Cal decides the time has come to start Dominique Hawkins.  He will take Poythress's place on the first platoon, which will now feature three guards (Hawkins and the Harrison Twins), Willie Cauley-Stein, and Karl-Anthony Towns.  The second platoon will be restored to its original lineup:  Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles, Booker, and Ulis.

I can only imagine the emotional roller coaster Hawkins has been through.  It can't be easy to go from being a high school star to being a back-up at Kentucky -- especially when you know you could be starting (and probably starring) for a school like Eastern Kentucky.  But presumably Hawkins has made his piece with that role.  Now, however, he's supposed to change emotional gears, and take on the swagger of a starter for the number-one team in the nation.  He's also a Kentuckian himself, which gives him a special tie to the program and its fans.  Any way you look at it, Hawkins faced a lot of pressure on Tuesday night.

And he was great.  He scored six points in 20 minutes, had three assists (to only one turnover), and his defensive pressure helped destroy the Missouri offense.  Meanwhile, the other nine UK platooners seemed very happy to be back in their old roles.  The Cats led 19-10 after 10 minutes, and then blew the game open, going into the locker room with a 44-18 lead.  They kept up the pressure in the second half, finishing with a 49-point win.

16-0 (only the fourth team in UK history to reach that mark).  3-0 in Conference.  15 games left.

Now UK is a good team, and Missouri is dealing with a first-year coach, but 49-point wins are very rare in conference play.  The 2012 Cats went 16-0 in the SEC, won the National Championship, and had the top two picks in the NBA Draft.  Their biggest win in Conference play was a 30-point victory over Georgia in the last home game of the year.  UK has had several spectacular performances this year, and every time I wonder how this team, which has no player as good as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, or Anthony Davis, can play so well.

So I did some research.  Here's how Calipari's UK teams compare in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency (each figure represents points per 100 possessions):

2010:  111.7 (27th in the country)
2011:  115.6 (10th)
2012:  121.3 (2d)
2013:  108.8 (42d)
2014:  117.6 (10th)
2015:  114.7 (11th)

As you can see, the Cats are doing pretty well on offense, but not as well as they did last year, or in 2011.  As you would expect, the 2012 team is in a class by itself here.  Now let's look at adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions):

2010:  88.0 (5th)
2011:  92.0 (15th)
2012:  89.9 (8th)
2013:  99.1 (129th)
2014:  96.9 (41st)
2015:  82.4 (1st)

And there it is.  UK's defensive efficiency has gone from 41st in the country last year to first this year.  In fact, this year's team is significantly better on defense than any of Calipari's other teams at UK.  And why is that?  Look at these numbers, showing the percentage of possessions on defense that end in turnovers:

2010:  19.7 (218th)
2011:  17.9 (293d)
2012:  17.6 (301st)
2013:  17.5 (295th)
2014:  16.1 (303d)
2015:  23.9 (17th)

During his first five seasons in Lexington, Calipari had his team play a solid team defense that didn't try for a lot of turnovers.  In every year -- even when John Wall was on the team -- UK was one of the teams least likely to create turnovers.  But this year, the Cats are suddenly turning their opponents over almost 24 percent of the time -- they are suddenly one of the best teams in this category.

And that, to me, is where the platoons make such a difference.  UK is basically fielding two teams that are similar to the team it fielded last year -- but each team is playing much faster, in large part because the players aren't worried about pacing themselves.  As a result, the Cats are creating a lot more turnovers, which makes their defense much better.  That's how a team with 10 solid players can sometimes look better than previous UK teams that had more star-power.

So I don't think the platoons are just a gimmick designed to keep everyone happy.  I don't think they are just for games against teams like Missouri, and that they will necessarily be abandoned against better opponents.  For this team to reach its potential, everyone has to go flat out -- they don't have a Davis or a Wall to win the game for them.  And they are much more likely to go flat out if they are in the platoons.

Of course, all of this depends on Hawkins playing well enough to justify being on the floor for 20 minutes a game.  It's a huge amount of pressure for anyone, and he has all my sympathy and support.  But my guess is that Hawkins would rather have the pressure than sit on the bench.

Next up, UK plays Alabama.  The Cats have not won in Tuscaloosa since Billy Gillespie was coach.  (True but odd fact:  In 2009, UK had double-digit wins in Knoxville (90-72), Athens (68-45), Tuscaloosa (61-51), and Fayetteville (79-63) -- and still missed the NCAA Tournament.  Second true but odd fact:  both UK and Florida missed the NCAA's that season).  This time, Pomeroy thinks the Cats should prevail by 64-56.  It should be quite a game.

1 comment:

  1. We're forever talking about "paradigm shifts" in the technology industry, and I really think we're seeing one with this Kentucky team.

    The combination of the current rules with regard to when players can enter the NBA draft, the apparent importance of per-minute performance metrics in scouting and the existence of the NBA's development league seems to have created this opportunity that John Calipari is out in front on right now. He can say to a bunch of promising recruits, Come and play here ... doesn't matter if you start ... doesn't matter if you play only 10 or 15 minutes every other game ... we'll still get you drafted ... look at Daniel Orton ... look at Marquis Teague.

    So then you got and get 10 or 11 athletes with some promising skills, you have them play constantly at a level of intensity that most opponents will be able to match for only half of a game and you keep everyone happy by allowing them to be treated like rock stars in Kentucky while they are here and get them drafted whenever they want to leave. That win over Kansas early in the year felt like it might get talked about for a little while.

    I hope they win today. This one's going to be hard.