Big Blue Nation had to let last Saturday’s loss linger for an entire week. This week shouldn’t feel as long coming off of a convincing victory. The Kentucky Wildcats went to the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and defeated the Penn Quakers 81-66. An early second-half spurt got it within one point, 47-46, with 15:17 to play, but Kentucky answered down the stretch. Defensively the ‘Cats showed some major strides, Aaron Bradshaw was excellent in his second live action, and DJ Wagner made his return to the starting lineup.
It wasn’t a complete 40 minutes, but it was certainly enough to pick up what was essentially a road win against a quality opponent.
With Saturday’s win, the Wildcats are now 7-2 on the season with a full week to prepare for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Saturday’s contest in Atlanta will be the Tar Heels’ first game since their loss to the defending national champion UConn Huskies on December 5th. With the Miami victory looking less and less impressive on paper, this will be an important result for Kentucky’s resume. However, before turning our attention to North Carolina, we will take a closer look at this win over the Quakers.
As always, we’ve been hard at work in the KSR Film Room breaking down Kentucky’s most recent performance. The defense looked much improved, at least for about 35 of the 40 minutes, and held a good Penn offense to 66 points and 9-28 shooting from three-point range. Additionally, after getting his feet wet against UNC Wilmington, Aaron Bradshaw played 29 minutes and looked like a potential NBA lottery pick. The Wildcats offense was clicking once again as well turning the ball over just 10 times on their way to scoring 1.14 points per possession.
Let’s dive in and take a look at the tape of Saturday’s 81-66 win over the Penn Quakers.
Steps Forward Defensively, More Room to Improve
Kentucky isn’t going to be an elite defensive team this season. Even as the rim protectors return to the floor the ceiling is probably a Top 40-50 unit. However, the Wildcats don’t need to be the best defensively. They have enough firepower offensively that they simply need to be “good enough” on the defensive end. On Saturday against the Penn Quakers, they turned in one of their best overall performances of the season. Aside from a tough stretch to begin the second half the ‘Cats were locked in defensively and held a good offensive team to just 66 points and 9-28 shooting from three-point range. There is certainly still room to grow, but we are seeing flashes of that defensive ceiling at times.
Effort and urgency can cover up some issues on the defensive end of the floor. That was the story of Saturday’s game for Kentucky defensively. They clearly played very hard and it helped them hold one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country to just 32.1%. There is a lot to like about this possession. Early on you get the guard-on-guard switch and Aaron Bradshaw moving his feet to corral the ball handler. Then Antonio Reeves gets over the handoff and stays on the ball handler’s hip as he drives it downhill. There is a little too much help on the drive, but Tre Mitchell closes out very aggressively on #40 Smith and gets him to miss. It wasn’t perfect execution, but that urgency on the closeout was great to see.
Kentucky was absolutely locked in defensively in the first half. However, they had some major lapses early in the second half that led to the Penn Quakers quickly cutting into the lead. Here is an example of a simple lack of concentration. Penn gets to a flare action for #0 Slajchert who is an excellent three-point shooter. In the first half, Rob Dillingham fought over the top of the same action and drew an illegal screen call. This time though DJ Wagner gets caught going under the flare and it leads to a wide-open three. As we discussed in the Scouting Report, the Quakers can make you pay for even the slightest lapse in concentration.
It is hard to double #13 Spinoso because he is such a good passer. However, if you do choose to go then you better make a play on the ball. DJ Wagner did exactly that in this clip. He aggressively goes and steals the basketball as Spinoso gets into his move. Again, Kentucky may not be elite defensively, but their ability to force turnovers makes them good enough. Aggressive plays like this will be their calling card throughout the rest of this season.
One of the above clips highlights DJ Wagner falling asleep on the defensive end and getting caught going under the flare screen. However, he learned from his mistake and was locked in the rest of the way. In this clip you see him do an excellent job of chasing #0 Slajchert and taking him away from three. Then, you get Aaron Bradshaw with a big block at the rim. That defensive play, which was as much Wagner as it was Bradshaw, led to an Antonio Reeves three on the other end. Turning defense into offense is what can make Kentucky “good enough.”
Welcome to the Show, Aaron Bradshaw
Aaron Bradshaw showed some flashes in his 13 minutes against UNC Wilmington last Saturday. However, those flashes quickly turned into bonafide stardom in his second live-action. The 7’1″ freshman played 29 minutes off of the bench in Kentucky’s win over the Penn Quakers scoring 17 points to go along with 11 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. His two-way impact was felt throughout the game and it appears that he will be as good or even better than advertised. There are obviously some areas left for improvement, but his effort alone stood out in a major way on Saturday. Adding him to an already talented roster is a major luxury for head coach John Calipari.
Such a big part of offensive rebounding is simply making an attempt. Sometimes the ball will bounce in a different direction and it won’t even be in your area. However, when you make a move every time you will eventually be rewarded. That is what made Oscar Tshiebwe so special and it worked for Aaron Bradshaw on Saturday too. His effort was rewarded with five offensive rebounds against the Penn Quakers. Take a look at the move he makes to whip #13 Spinoso. This is big time from Bradshaw.
You can’t teach this type of effort. Aaron Bradshaw absolutely sprints from rim to rim and is rewarded for his effort with a perfect pass from Reed Sheppard. Kentucky has already been elite in transition this season. However, adding in a rim-running threat like Bradshaw can take it to a whole other level.
Kentucky is so fun to watch offensively. This give-and-go between Rob Dillingham and Aaron Bradshaw is something we can get used to seeing. The play is all set up by Bradshaw setting the early drag ballscreen and then looking for the ball on the short roll. His length and athleticism allow for a tough finish. Being 7’1″ sure helps around the rim.
Per KenPom, the Wildcats are 13th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their last two performances of 73 and 81 points are the lowest scoring output of the season, but Kentucky still averages 90.6 points per game on the season. They are playing fast, playing without turning it over, and shooting the lights out from three-point range. A lot of that comes from simply having really good players, but you can’t discount their offensive execution. Let’s take a closer look at the tape.
Good things happen when Tre Mitchell has the ball in his hands. His skill level puts so much pressure on opposing defenses. As you see in this clip, the Penn Quakers won’t help from the perimeter at all for fear of giving up a three. Then, when they bring help off of Aaron Bradshaw, he smartly slides along the baseline and gets a catch at the rim. 35 assists to just 11 turnovers on the season for Mitchell. That’s a pretty incredible ratio for a forward.
We are finishing things off with the sandwich method. A little constructive criticism between two positive clips. There has been some discussion recently about Kentucky taking fewer three-point shots in their recent games. Whether it be a philosophical shift or simply a result of defensive adjustments it is certainly a fact that the ‘Cats have taken fewer shots from beyond the arc. Regardless of the larger reasoning, it is also true that passing up open looks like this is how you go from 25 attempts to 20 attempts. “SHOOT ‘EM ALL, ANTONIO” is a fun trend, but it is also legitimately serious. Passing up on this open three-point attempt ultimately leads to a turnover. Even Rob Dillingham could have squeezed one off before turning it over. Those two are a combined 46-95 on the season. They shouldn’t be turning any of them down.
Coach Calipari went back to some good old floppy action late in the game to run the clock. Kentucky’s execution shows how just about any offense can look good and effective when you have really good players. On an earlier possession, Rob Dillingham curled the baseline screen and had Aaron Bradshaw wide open for a lob at the rim, but instead threw it chest high for a turnover. The ‘Cats just need to get accustomed to throwing it up for their new lob threat. Here, Antonio Reeves gets his defender to go up through and flares the screen towards the corner. That allows him to attack the longer closeout for a little floater. Reeves has made some real strides in scoring inside of the arc this season. He is 34-57 from two-point range.