Much has been made of Kentucky’s defense this season, and for good reason. The 27-0 Wildcats currently lead the nation with a 84.4 adjusted defensive rating, according to kenpom.com, which is also the highest in the kenpom database. But while their defense has earned much of the credit for their success so far, their offense has been no slouch with a current 118.5 adjusted offensive rating. Kentucky’s offensive scheme isn’t overly complicated but Coach Calipari deserves credit for accumulating talent and putting his players in positions to succeed while playing to their strengths. And coming off yet another dominant victory, in which they poured in a remarkable 110 points against a hapless Auburn team, the nuances of that offense merit a closer examination.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”NCAA” title=”More NCAA Articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Kentucky’s offense produces a multitude of talking points about how they score on a nightly basis, but one of their most unappreciated skills is their off-ball movement to find open space. While most people’s first thought about off-ball movement is the precise utilization of screens, Kentucky finds success off-ball without screens as well.
The Wildcat players are great at moving off the ball into open spaces, putting them in passing lanes or rebounding position. While this seems like a simple concept, it’s not always easy for college players to master, especially a group of freshman and sophomores.
The clip below from the start of the 34 point home win over South Carolina on Valentine’s Day shows this awareness in action, here by center Karl-Anthony Towns. When Andrew Harrison starts his drive, Towns is not in a passing lane. However, once the defender moves over to help contest the shot, Towns shifts two steps to the front of the rim allowing an easy dump-off from Harrison for the dunk.
Their guards are excellent at this as well, in order to spot up for jump shots. Kentucky isn’t a great shooting team, ingshoot just 34.2% from three point range as a team, but when they have this much space they won’t miss often. They get this space because their guards can find the open spaces on the perimeter with off-ball movement instead of standing and watch the dribble drive action.
Kentucky’s assist rate is 59%, the highest in the Calipari era, according to KenPom. With the way their players can move without the ball, this opens up lanes to make easy passes for open shots. This movement is subtle and seems intuitive, but it isn’t always a staple of collegiate players, as evidence by previous Kentucky teams. This year, Calipari has his players moving intelligently without the ball to find open spaces on the court, leading to easy baskets.
While much of Kentucky’s off ball movement comes without screens, they are also effective when using them to get open, especially Devin Booker. Booker, the best three point shooter on the team at 47.3%, is deadly when using screens to get open. He cuts crisply, running his defender right into the screener to free himself for open field goal attempts.
This movement also benefits them on the offensive glass, as they currently rebound 41.4% of their misses, fifth in the nation. Towns is especially strong here with an offensive rebounding rate of 14.5%, 27th in the nation amongst players with at least 450 minutes played, and his frontcourt mate Dakari Johnson comes in with an ever better rate of 14.9%, 22nd in the nation. Further aided by Marcus Lee (also 14.9%, but without enough minutes to quality), Willie Cauley-Stein (10.4%) and Trey Lyles (10.3%), and the Wildcats team can certainly rebound in traffic and convert putbacks.
Despite having a physical advantage against most other frontcourts, the Kentucky big men still work hard to control the glass. And they do. As soon as the shot is released, the Wildcat frontcourt leaps into action and begins to carve out their spots. Most of the movement is subtle, as the bigs are already around the rim, but they are great at beating the defenders to prime rebounding position.
According to hoop-math, 15.2% of Kentucky’s field goals at the rim are the result of putback opportunities, with Kentucky shooting 75.4% on such opportunities. When they get the offensive rebound, they are usually in position to convert the putback, even when surrounded by defenders, spurred on by their length and physical tools.
What makes Kentucky special is that they don’t need to flood the glass to be one of the best offensive rebounding teams, as they can rely on their multitude of big men to rebound even when at a numerical disadvantage. This allows the guards to maintain defensive coverage and not let opponents out in transition. Since Kentucky’s length allows them to rebound at a disadvantage and their movement puts them in perfect position to finish putbacks, the guards can set up the defense. In the frame below, you see all three guards available to be in position to defend any transition opportunities that may happen. While these chances are few due to Kentucky’s ability to rebound and finish, the defensive setup is in place.
Kentucky is difficult to guard because of their constant moving and sharing of the ball. They’re an unselfish team and when their ballhandlers are looking to distribute, the rest of their players are excellent at putting themselves in position to receive passes and get open shots. This is difficult for college teams to guard as they aren’t always able to recognize off-ball movement and rotate properly.
Defenses will need to find ways to slow Kentucky on the offensive glass while keeping track of cutters off the ball. They have some of the best athletes in the country, and supplement their physical advantage with an advanced court awareness which makes them difficult to slow down, as they are able to find the unoccupied areas on the floor to get open shots. As long as they continue to focus on this skill set, Kentucky will be a tough offense to handle due to this combination that many teams will find extremely tough tough to defend.