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Know your Rupp rival: Kentucky


Andy Lyons

Kyle Wiltjer is still a terribly awkward matchup. Willie Cauley-Stein is bigger, and with a solid amount of defensive upside himself. The offense still runs through Archie Goodwin. A Kentucky team without Nerlens Noel still has quite a bit to offer, and the light switch could go on at any time. That they have barely played at a Top 100 level since he was lost for the season to a knee injury is encouraging; but proceed with caution.

Kentucky Wildcats (18-8)

Pace (No. of Possessions)
Points Per Possession (PPP)
1.11 0.95
Points Per Shot (PPS)
1.34 1.08
2-PT FG% 53.1% 41.5%
3-PT FG% 36.2% 32.5%
FT% 64.7% 70.1%
True Shooting % 56.6% 47.6%

UK Opp.
Assists/Gm 14.3 11.0
Steals/Gm 6.2 5.7
Turnovers/Gm 13.2 12.5
Ball Control Index (BCI)
(Assists + Steals) / TO
1.55 1.34

UK Opp.
Expected Off. Rebounds/Gm 10.2 12.9
Offensive Rebounds/Gm 11.4 12.1
Difference +1.2 -0.8

It's difficult to know what to derive from these stats considering nearly 24 of Kentucky's 26 games were played with Noel. The offensive numbers shouldn't change much without him -- his Usage Rate suggests he was nothing but a role player (if a very good one) on that side of the ball. But you might want to just completely ignore the defensive numbers. Noel changed everything on that side of the court; Tennessee made 53 percent of its 2-pointers and averaged an absurd 1.35 points per possession in his absence, and Vanderbilt -- young, iffy Vanderbilt -- averaged 1.15 points per possession at Rupp on Wednesday. There is still shot-blocking potential here (Cauley-Stein had three versus Vandy), and the 3-point defense is still generally solid (it wasn't against Vandy, though). But Noel was an incredible presence on defense, and his absence has not treated the Wildcats well so far.

Ken Pomeroy Stats

UK Offense vs MU Defense Ranks

UK Offense MU Defense Advantage
Efficiency 27 55 UK
Effective FG% 26 68 UK
Turnover % 125 292 UK big
Off. Reb. % 75 22 MU
FTA/FGA 35 28 push
MU Offense vs UK Defense Ranks

MU Offense UK Defense Advantage
Efficiency 16 66 MU
Effective FG% 92 21 UK
Turnover % 131 274 MU big
Off. Reb. % 9 144 MU big
FTA/FGA 208 45 UK big

Where the Wildcats are weakest

They draw a ton of fouls, but they aren't good at making free throws. Noel is only a 50% shooter, but Cauley-Stein (40%) is worse. They aren't a wonderful passing team, either (178th in Assists Per FG Made). They're thin as hell (262nd in Bench Minutes), which was the case even before Noel's injury, and they are, in John Calipari style, amazingly inexperienced (337th in Experience; they were 340th last year, of course). They prevent you from taking too many 3's, which is good, but they foul you quite a bit on the perimeter, which is the primary cause for their No. 229 ranking in Def. FT%. Oh yeah, and they don't force turnovers. They are almost as bad at that as Missouri.

And honestly, their rebounding percentages are far too low considering their height. They go for a ton of blocked shots, even without Noel, and it opens them up to quite a few second-chance opportunities. But even their offensive rebound numbers are only good, not great.

Where they are best

I realize Kentucky is firmly on the tourney bubble, but don't let that lull you to sleep too much. Even with a now-iffy defense, the offense is still solid. The Wildcats take good shots for the most part (19th in 2PT%, 72nd in 3PT%), which is actually impressive considering how many shots Archie Goodwin takes (and often misses). With Noel, they prevented you from getting good shots of your own (13th in 2PT%, 117th in 3PT%, seventh in Block%), though that is obviously less so without him. They are also still really tall without him (third in Effective Height).

Kentucky's Season to Date

  • Wins With Nerlens Noel (Team Rank is from
    at No. 45 Ole Miss (87-74)
    vs. No. 60 Maryland (72-69)
    No. 73 Tennessee (75-65)
    at No. 88 Texas A&M (72-68, OT)
    No. 105 LSU (75-70)
    at No. 120 Vanderbilt (60-58)
    at No. 158 Auburn (75-53)
    No. 158 Auburn (72-62)
    No. 197 Lafayette (101-49)
    No. 198 South Carolina (77-55)
    No. 209 Long Island (104-75)
    No. 223 Marshall (82-54)
    No. 224 Morehead State (81-70)
    No. 231 Eastern Michigan (90-38)
    No. 248 Portland (74-46)
    No. 274 Samford (88-56)
    No. 300 Lipscomb (88-50)
  • Losses With Nerlens Noel
    at No. 1 Florida (52-69)
    at No. 3 Louisville (77-80)
    vs. No. 6 Duke (68-75)
    No. 41 Baylor (55-64)
    at No. 53 Notre Dame (50-64)
    at No. 77 Alabama (55-59)
    No. 88 Texas A&M (71-83)
  • Games Without Nerlens Noel
    L, at No. 73 Tennessee (58-88)
    W, No. 120 Vanderbilt (74-70)

Like Missouri with Laurence Bowers, it hasn't taken Kentucky long to see its Pomeroy ranking fall without its star. Heading into the Florida game on February 12 (the one in which Noel was injured), Kentucky ranked 18th. The Wildcats had lost quite a few close games, which often happens when you're young and haven't figured out how to win them yet, but on paper they were still really strong. In a week and a half, they have fallen from 18th to 36th. A 30-point loss to No. 73 and a narrow home win over No. 120 will do that for you.

Kentucky Player Stats

Player AdjGS*/Gm GmSc/Min Line
Nerlens Noel (6'10, 228, Fr.) 17.0 0.53 31.9 MPG, 10.5 PPG (59% 2PT, 53% FT), 9.5 RPG, 4.4 BPG, 2.1 SPG, 1.6 APG, 1.9 TOPG, 2.6 PFPG
Kyle Wiltjer (6'10, 239, So.) 10.5 0.42 24.8 MPG, 11.6 PPG (50% 2PT, 41% 3PT, 84% FT), 4.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.5 TOPG
Archie Goodwin (6'5, 198, Fr.) 10.4 0.33 31.8 MPG, 13.7 PPG (46% 2PT, 24% 3PT, 65% FT), 4.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 3.1 TOPG, 2.8 PFPG
Willie Cauley-Stein (7'0, 244, Fr.) 9.9 0.48 20.7 MPG, 8.1 PPG (64% 2PT, 40% FT), 5.4 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 1.2 TOPG
Alex Poythress (6'7, 239, Fr.) 9.7 0.38 25.4 MPG, 11.5 PPG (59% 2PT, 40% 3PT, 70% FT), 6.1 RPG, 2.3 TOPG, 2.7 PFPG
Julius Mays (6'2, 192, Sr.) 8.6 0.27 32.2 MPG, 9.4 PPG (40% 2PT, 38% 3PT, 83% FT), 3.1 APG, 3.0 RPG
Ryan Harrow (6'2, 170, So.) 7.5 0.28 27.2 MPG, 9.5 PPG (48% 2PT, 28% 3PT, 63% FT), 3.0 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.6 TOPG
Jarrod Polson (6'2, 189, Jr.) 2.8 0.22 12.8 MPG, 2.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG
Jon Hood (6'7, 212, Jr.) 1.6 0.32 4.8 MPG, 1.3 PPG

* AdjGS = a take-off of the Game Score metric (definition here) accepted by a lot of basketball stat nerds. It redistributes a team's points based not only on points scored, but also by giving credit for assists, rebounds (offensive & defensive), steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls. It is a stat intended to determine who had the biggest overall impact on the game itself, instead of just how many balls a player put through a basket.

  • Highest Usage%: Goodwin (27%), Wiltjer (23%), Poythress (23%)
  • Highest Floor%: Cauley-Stein (47%), Noel (44%), Polson (44%), Poythress (41%)
  • Highest %Pass: Mays (64%), Polson (64%), Harrow (60%)
  • Highest %Shoot: Poythress (44%), Wiltjer (41%), Cauley-Stein (38%)
  • Highest %Fouled: Poythress (23%), Noel (17%), Cauley-Stein (15%), Goodwin (14%)
  • Highest %T/O: Poythress (14%), Noel (9%), Goodwin (8%), Cauley-Stein (8%)
  • Despite not commanding the ball on offense, Noel made an enormous impact for the Wildcats. He was in the nation's Top 100 in Block% (11th), eFG% (65th), FT Rate (71st) and Steal% (97th), and he was in the Top 300 in both Def. Rebound % (111th) and Off. Rebound % (285th). He was just about as good as advertised, really, despite a lack of a diverse offensive arsenal. Losing him was huge, to state the obvious.

Keys to the Game

  1. The First 10 Minutes. Kentucky is not built to lean on its 3-pointer if it needs to come back, and the Wildcats don't force turnovers; they are, in other words, a team built to play from ahead. But even beyond that ... this is a Missouri road game. When the Tigers struggle away from home, it is likely accompanied by an absolutely awful start. I'd give examples, but you've probably memorized them by now. In each of the last two road games -- the massacre of Mississippi State and the shoulda-been-a-win against Arkansas -- Missouri has started well. Give Kentucky an early lead, and this young team could sprout newfound confidence. Put the Wildcats in an early hole, and Rupp Arena could be quiet for quite a while. (This is triply important considering the potential travel issues this team faces in escaping Columbia in time for the game. Iffy travel can lead to a sluggish start.)

  2. The Glass. Kentucky wasn't an amazing rebounding team even with Noel. Meanwhile, Missouri has gone back to owning the glass for the most part in recent weeks. If the Tigers can dominate in this facet, limiting opportunities for Kentucky and generating second-chances for themselves, they will have a very good chance of leaving Lexington with a 20th win.

  3. Laurence Bowers vs. Kyle Wiltjer. One has to assume that these two players will spend a good portion of the game guarding each other; each are power forward types who enjoy roaming the perimeter at times. Both have had plenty of ups and downs recently -- Wiltjer has scored 10 points or fewer in four of his last six games and has made just eight of his last 23 2-point attempts, while Bowers had his first truly strong offensive game in over a month against Florida (and even in that game, he needed 17 shots to score 17 points). Whoever wins this battle, at least statistically, will have potentially given his team the upper hand.


Boy, I don't know what to think about this one. If Missouri has a strong, or even decent, first 10 minutes, I see something in the neighborhood of a 74-67 win for the Tigers. If the Tigers are sluggish early, however, they might not catch back up. Pomeroy projects a 75-73 Kentucky win, but Noel still figures in those stats. I will be cautiously optimistic and go with the 74-67 prediction above, but these teams are both pretty high-variance. Anything between a 15-point Missouri win and a 15-point Kentucky win won't surprise me too much. Recent form gives Missouri the edge, but again, don't get too confident.