Once a team has made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, it often looks much different than it did during the regular season. Virginia Commonwealth is Exhibit A there, of course, but even a team that was in the national polls all season long can learn a few new tricks when late March rolls around. Take Kentucky.
This won't come as news to Wildcat fans, but for the rest of you out there let me say that this team didn't always look like this. If you'd watched John Calipari's team in, say, January, you would have seen a lot more shooting from Terrence Jones, somewhat less shooting from Brandon Knight, and most definitely fewer points from Josh Harrellson.
Whether these changes reflect directives laid down by Calipari, unconscious real-time choices by the players themselves, or a little of both I can't say. All I know is these changes are real. For the year as a whole Knight has accounted for 26 percent of Kentucky's shots during his minutes, but during the NCAA tournament that number has increased to 31 percent. And while a five percent increase in something may not sound earth-shattering, keep in mind Kinght's prominence in the offense is now within shouting distance of the starring role that Kemba Walker has played in Connecticut's offense this season.
Now for the surprising part: Knight's most certainly taking more shots, but he's not necessarily making a lot of them. To be sure, the freshman's NCAA tournament numbers are dragged down by the miserable two-point 1-of-8 game he recorded in the round of 64 against Princeton. But even if he throw out that game, Knight has been easily the least efficient scorer in UK's six-man rotation during the tournament -- in large part because he's connected on just 37 percent of his two-point attempts.
What is wrong with this picture? I'm citing the very low efficiency numbers recorded by the star player...of a team that's made it to the Final Four. How can that be?
First, you may have noticed that while Knight isn't exactly setting new records for accuracy from the field, he sure did come in handy in the final minutes of both the Princeton and the Ohio State games. In both contests Knight hit the game-winning shot, and his 18-footer against the Buckeyes in particular was heroic. If that shot doesn't fall, the game almost certainly goes to OT. Instead Knight sent the tournament's No. 1 overall seed home even though OSU's best perimeter defender, Aaron Craft, was draped all over him. Maybe Knight hasn't made a lot of his shots, but he sure has picked his spots.
Second, Knight's emergence as the focal point of the offense means opposing defenses are keying on him. This has freed up his teammates to put up some pretty impressive numbers. Josh Harrellson has made a mind-boggling 76 percent of his two-point attempts during the tournament, even while he (like Knight) has come to take on a much larger role within the offense. DeAndre Liggins has connected on 46 percent of his threes over the last four games. He and Darius Miller are both making more than half of their two-pointers. You get the idea. When defenses are preoccupied with Knight, it creates those proverbial open looks for everyone else on the floor. Kentucky's shooting from the field during the NCAA tournament has been significantly better than it was in SEC play.
Nor have UK's postseason changes made themselves felt exclusively on offense. Throughout his career Calipari has often had teams that make life absolutely miserable for opponents foolish enough to try a three-point shot. That wasn't the case during the regular season, but in the NCAA tournament the Wildcats have looked much more like a "normal" Calipari defense. Kentucky's four opponents have made just 29 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc.
One more new wrinkle the Cats have added just in the past couple weeks. I don't know if it's meant to conserve Harrellson's suddenly important energy for offense, or if it's just a coincidence. But for some reason Terrence Jones has become clearly and simply The Man when it comes to this team's defensive rebounding. In the tournament Jones has hauled in 23 percent of the other teams' misses during his minutes. Meanwhile Harrellson has become the lone offensive rebounding presence on the team, pulling down 15 percent of Kentucky's missed shots while he's on the floor. Kentucky's tournament run illustrates again why it's misleading to speak of "rebounds" and not distinguish between offensive and defensive boards. The former are Harrellson's postseason specialty, and the latter have become Jones' responsibility.
It's been pointed out that UK isn't exactly blowing away opponents in the NCAA tournament, having reached Houston thanks to winning four games by a total of 19 points. True enough, but seen in historical terms the Wildcats fared quite well considering they were a No. 4 seed in a bracket that held together. (In fact the Cats are the first No. 4 seed to reach the Final Four since LSU did it in 2006.) Playing Princeton, West Virginia, Ohio State, and North Carolina is unlikely to result in four easy wins.
Nor do I expect to see either team run away from the other when Kentucky faces Connecticut on Saturday. Expect still another close game, lots of feverish interest in the pregame handshake between Calipari and Jim Calhoun, and, most off all, a look of recognition when Kemba Walker sees the role that Brandon Knight has come to fill for his team.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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