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Hoops Preview: Kentucky still hasn’t figured it out

Kentucky, despite another elite recruiting class, is on the edge of its first losing season in 31 years.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

“I wouldn’t worry about Kentucky. They’ll figure it out.”

It seems like the beginning of every college basketball season finds multitudes of college hoops fans uttering something similar to the above phrase. Kentucky, a team that hasn’t ranked outside the KenPom top 30 since their “ill-fated” 21-12 season of 2013, is known for slow or chaotic starts as John Calipari crafts, shapes and forms his diamond recruits into something resembling a fine piece of jewelry. They end up being just fine, rolling their way deep into March before the next crop of future NBAers rolls into Lexington the coming summer.

That’s what makes the 2020-2021 season so disconcerting. Kentucky, the bluest of blue bloods, is staring down the barrel of its first losing season in 31 years. To avoid doing so, the Wildcats will need to go 7-2 down the stretch, one that features two games against Tennessee, a home date with Florida and the very game they’re about to play. Despite still ranking 52nd in adjusted efficiency, Kentucky has never figured it out... and even doing it now may not be enough to save their season.

Still, Kentucky has all the hallmarks of a team with lots of talent. Their raw athleticism and skill has allowed John Calipari to craft one of the nation’s best defenses, one that excels at protecting the paint and forcing tough shots. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, that hasn’t translated to any success on offense — the Wildcats have only scored more than 65 points five times, all five being wins.

For Missouri, a win over Kentucky won’t mean as much in the long-term, but it means a lot for the moment. The Tigers are in a dog pile for a top four spot in the SEC, and they’re the only team with a reasonable shot at catching Alabama, assuming the Tide don’t fall off a cliff in the coming weeks. As strange as it is to say, it’s true — if Missouri has aspirations at a top seed in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, Kentucky is a team to whom they can’t lose.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (11-3) Kentucky (5-10)
Position Missouri (11-3) Kentucky (5-10)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Davion Mintz (Sr., 6'3", 196)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Devin Askew (Fr., 6'3", 198)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Brandon Boston (Fr., 6'7", 185)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Keion Brooks (So., 6'7", 205)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Olivier Sarr (Sr., 7'0", 237)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Before we break down this Kentucky roster, two quick notes:

1. In his Tuesday chat with the press, John Calipari noted that Kentucky will be without some players for Wednesday night’s game.

Our friends at A Sea of Blue seem to think Terrance Clarke will continue to sit with an ankle injury, and they’re also speculating that Brandon Boston Jr. could be held back because of an ankle tweak. We’ll cover the latter, as he played through it last week, but Clarke doesn’t seem to be close to returning.

2. Cam’Ron Fletcher, the St. Louis recruit who chose Kentucky over Missouri in the last cycle, has not played in a game since the early season blowup he had on the bench. Fletcher left the team for a time and returned soon after. However, he hasn’t seen the floor since, likely signaling that his playing time this season (and possibly at Kentucky) is over.

Kentucky’s roster, much to the chagrin of its fans, is both talented and flawed in 2021. Most years, it’s only the former.

Brandon Boston (see above) leads the latest crop of freshmen for the Wildcats. But despite his heavy usage, Boston hasn’t been entirely effective anywhere on the floor. He’s not a very good shooter away from the free throw line, he’s an average rebounder and he’s not a prolific shot-blocker. He does create some turnovers and doesn’t give up many, but that’s about it.

The real find of Kentucky’s freshman class (in this writer’s opinion) has been Isaiah Jackson. The 6’10” Michigan recruit is, quite possibly, the most talented shot-blocker in the country — he’s second in KenPom block percentage — and a formidable rebounder on both ends of the court. He fouls too much (a theme amongst Kentucky’s bigs), but he’s a wall down low. Devin Askew gets a lot of minutes as a newbie as well, though he fits the mold of Kentucky’s offense a little too well — inefficient shooting combined with turnover happy handles. Perhaps the most surprising find of the class has been Dontaie Allen, who erupted onto the scene in a double overtime thriller to open SEC play. He scored 23 points in that game and has easily been the Wildcats’ best shooting threat from deep, hitting at 46 percent. He’s a bit one-dimensional though, shooting 35 percent from two. Lance Ware rounds out the freshman class with spot minutes, and is capable of getting to the line... if he isn’t putting his opponents there first.

In reality, Kentucky is bolstered by a much larger non-freshman group that usual. Transfer seniors Davion Mintz (Creighton) and Olivier Sarr (Wake Forest) both rank as some of the prime minutes-eaters, with Mintz serving as one of the team’s primary creators. He too is plagued by turnover problems, but he is a little more capable from the floor than some of his younger counterparts. Sarr, the team’s other interior threat, also possesses some shot-blocking capability, while being a bit more reliable as a shooter. Unfortunately for Kentucky, he too is prone to foul trouble.

Sophomores Keion Brooks and Jacob Toppin round out the roster. Brooks plays spot minutes due to some of his defensive issues, but he’s an effective offensive spark plug. He shoots well from close range and excels at getting to the line and drawing contact. He’s also a good rebounder from the wing/combo forward spot. Toppin fits the same mold with just a little more size and less of a propensity to foul on the defensive end. He’ll play rotational minutes, but may be called upon for more if Jackson and Sarr have to sit with fouls.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Kentucky Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 111.6 (34) 16.5 (107) 51.3 (114) 19 (153) 30.6 (84) 41.8 (17) 30.1 (300) 54.8 (35) 70.9 (159) 11.6 (321) 8.5 (120)
Kentucky 90.2 (15) 17.3 (208) 45.8 (33) 17.4 (267) 30.5 (267) 29.7 (123) 30.2 (52) 46 (57) 71.1 (191) 15.6 (5) 9.4 (138)
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Take care of the ball and crash the glass

Kentucky’s defense is ranked 15th in KenPom defensive efficiency, and it starts with their ability to force tough shots. They’re not quite as adept at doing so around the perimeter as Missouri, but they’re better at protecting the paint. Part of that includes one of the country’s very best block rates — 15.6 per 40 minutes, mostly thanks to Isaiah Jackson.

Where the Wildcats don’t exceed, however, they’re extremely vulnerable. They’re one of the worst power conference teams in both forcing turnovers and preventing offensive boards. Missouri may have trouble getting clean looks inside where they want them. If they don’t give up possessions and can create some second chances, they’ll have the right formula for combating Kentucky’s interior wall.

When Kentucky has the ball...

Kentucky Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Kentucky 105.5 (98) 17.4 (209) 45.7 (313) 21.4 (277) 34.7 (30) 33 (153) 29 (310) 46.6 (275) 71.7 (141) 8.3 (150) 9.4 (209)
Missouri 93.8 (40) 17.1 (169) 46.1 (40) 17.3 (273) 29.9 (241) 36.3 (272) 29.5 (32) 47 (85) 69.4 (133) 8.5 (169) 8.3 (230)
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Crash the glass on the other end too

Let’s not mince words because, let’s be honest, Kentucky fans handle a little bit of criticism. Kentucky’s offense is bad. They rank 98th in adjusted efficiency... so yeah, they’re decidedly not good. They’re one of the worst shooting teams in the country. They turn the ball over a lot. And they’re only mediocre at getting to the free throw line.

The one thing Kentucky does well, though, they do very well. The Wildcats are the country’s 30th best offensive rebounding team, which fits right into the Calipari mold of young, freakishly athletic players. If Missouri can keep the Wildcats at bay on the offensive glass, Kentucky will need an out-of-character performance everywhere else on the court to score points.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 69, Kentucky 65 | Everyone knows what Kentucky is capable of, even in their down years. Despite being five games under .500, KenPom still gives the Wildcats a one in three shot of winning a game on Mizzou’s home court. Just a few weeks ago, the Wildcats stomped Florida in Gainesville. They haven’t put it together yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally incapable.

However, this is a game Missouri needs to win if it wants to solidify itself as a top four SEC team. Kentucky plays strong defense, especially around the rim, and could challenge a Missouri offense that has been inconsistent. If the Tigers get solid performances from Tilmon and Brown and can have at least one player shoot respectably from deep, they should be able to keep the Wildcats at bay.