Kentucky basketball is fun again and perhaps nothing mathematically proves the joy inside Big Blue Nation’s veins more than advanced analytics. Between Reed Sheppard going en fuego from behind the arc or Rob Dillingham getting all shifty, Kentucky basketball has not produced this level of excitement in years. That’s the feeling anyway.
However, busting out the calculator proves these piques in adrenalin are not unfounded. So, let’s do that and validate our feelings of exuberance while watching Kentucky play basketball with science.
Cal has makers, not just shooters
Kentucky ranks 21st in the country among teams who have played at least three games in overall offensive rating. Their rating of 122.6 ranks in the 93rd percentile in all college hoops and trails only Alabama in the SEC.
When it comes to shooting the ball, Kentucky ranks in the 80th percentile or higher in 2-point (82nd percentile), 3-point (83rd percentile), and true shooting percentage (85th percentile). Their free-throw shooting is slightly lower, as their 74.6 percent from the charity stripe ranks them in the 74th percentile. Yet, if this were to hold all season, it would be the second-best free-throw shooting percentage in the Calipari era.
So, you know, perspective.
Back to 3-pointers for a minute: Kentucky his hoisting a Calipari era-record 30.5 per game. This ranks them 10th in the nation, but wait, there’s more. Not only is Kentucky just shooting 3s, they’re making them. The ‘Cats are knocking down 37.7 percent of their shots from deep, which ranks them in the 82nd percentile in the country.
This is all while some of Kentucky’s best players are struggling with their shot early on, so this number will likely only improve.
Kentucky has been stingy yet sharing with the ball
Where Kentucky has really shined early has been taking care of the basketball. Through the first four games, the ‘Cats are posting an incredible turnover rate of 9.4 percent. That means Kentucky has turned the ball over just 9.4 times per 100 possessions. This is good for 6th in the entire country.
Instead of turning it over, Kentucky is dishing out assists. 17.3 percent of the team’s possessions end in an assist, which ranks them in the 91st percentile in Division I. When you combine those two stats, the Wildcats boast a 2.23-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which ranks 8th in the country.
Many times in the past when Kentucky has posted a low number of turnovers in a game, Calipari would say he prefers about 10 per game, because that means the team is playing fast. Thankfully in 2023, we no longer have to wish for turnovers to understand a team’s pace of play.
Kentucky has a pace of 71.7, which ranks them in the 77th percentile in the country. That means that the ‘Cats are turning over the ball incredibly infrequently and dishing out a ton of assists while still well above average when it comes to playing fast.
Insert obligatory caveats here
To summarize, Kentucky is taking and making a ton of 3s (and 2s for that matter), sharing the ball extremly well with each other without turning it over, and playing at a pace that is faster than more than 75 percent of every other team in the nation.
Of course, all of these stats come with two huge caveats. First and most obviously, Kentucky has only played four basketball games. The sample size is small. For example, odds are that Sheppard is not going to finish the season shooting 70 percent from behind the arc. That being said, the sample size is growing and we’ve seen similar trends through all four games. They are heading in a great direction.
Secondly, Kentucky is missing 21 feet of production. The team’s three 7-footers have yet to see the floor and thus, the Wilddcats have played a five-out offense designed for more of a fast-paced approach than the days of Oscar Tschiebwe holding down the paint.
Will Calipari change his offensive strategy once Aaron Bradshaw, Zvonimir Ivisic, and/or Ugonna Onyenso make their season debut? Time will tell. As for now, Kentucky basketball is Kentucky basketball again. And it is a whole lotta fun.