It was something of a tribute to John Calipari that he could lose all five starters from last season and still enter 2012-13 with his Kentucky team ranked No. 3 in the nation in the preseason. Let's call that one extreme of opinion regarding the Wildcats.
At the other extreme, of course, there is the fact that UK was dropped from the rankings entirely after losing consecutive games at Notre Dame and at home against Baylor. Indeed at this writing the Wildcats are still unranked in the AP poll. (That won't last.)
In between these two extremes we find Kentucky as they are, and perhaps as we should have regarded them right from the beginning. Not as good as last season's Wildcats by any means, but very good and getting better.
My working assumption all along for this season's team has been that the proper standard of comparison is not the impossibly high precedent set a year ago by Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, and company, but rather the example presented by Kentucky two seasons ago. That year Jones was a freshman, Brandon Knight was the point guard, and Josh Harrellson was a decidedly underrated big man.
Fortunately the Wildcats have been playing Louisville at the very end of the calendar year for a while now, so we can make head-to-head comparisons between present and past Kentucky teams. Two seasons ago UK won at Louisville 78-63, pushing their record to 11-2. To that point in the season the Wildcats were outscoring their opponents by 0.24 points per possession, an impressive figure against a fairly tough schedule.
This season, as you may have heard, Kentucky lost at Louisville 80-77, dropping Calipari's team to just 8-4. On a per-possession basis, however, this group resembles the 2010-11 team more closely than you might think. The Wildcats are outscoring their opponents by 0.22 points per trip, albeit against a schedule that's somewhat less formidable than what UK had faced at this point two seasons ago.
In short, Kentucky is playing at a level that's not quite as good as but still similar to that recorded by Calipari's team two seasons ago -- and that team ended up going to the Final Four.
I make it a policy never to worry too much about the defense of a Calipari team, and that looks like a wise decision again this season. Even while posting a so-so 8-4 record, UK has played good D. No, the questions for this team quickly centered on its offense, as the Cats mustered just 105 points in 132 possessions in those back-to-back losses against Notre Dame and Baylor.
In this sense Kentucky can draw some encouraging lessons from their loss to Louisville. Losing to a bitter rival is never good news, of course. Still, scoring 77 points in 72 possessions in a true road game against what I for one consider to be the nation's best defense comprises arguably the Wildcats' most impressive showing to date.
Then again Kentucky could have drawn those encouraging lessons and also, you know, won the actual game if they just could have made their free throws. You'll be hearing a lot about how Calipari's teams "always" struggle at the free throw line, but over the past two seasons UK was in fact laudably accurate from 15 feet away. This season, by contrast, it's clear that free throws will indeed represent an adventure. The 11-of-23 effort against the Cardinals was extreme but not entirely out of character from a team that has made just 63 percent of its free throws on the young season.
But let's be even more specific: Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein have combined to make just 46 percent of their free throws this season. The rest of the roster has shot 70 percent at the line.
In other words, bad free throw shooting's not a problem for Calipari's "team," it's a problem for Noel and Cauley-Stein. For the foreseeable future these two guys will be touching the ball for the most part on lobs thrown to the rim and of course on their own initiative in the form of offensive rebounds. It's simply too big a risk to give them the ball consistently on traditional post feeds.
Presenting the Pressey Paradox
Just one week after encouraging you, the reader, to take the Jeff Withey Challenge, I now ask you to join me in pondering the paradox presented by Missouri's star point guard Phil Pressey.
In the Tigers' 97-94 overtime loss at UCLA Friday night, Pressey had a truly amazing game, posting a 19-19 points-assists double-double in 44 minutes of playing time. The 5-11 junior is able to do things off the dribble that most players can't do even without the ball. He penetrates the paint virtually at will, draws the defense, and kicks the ball to the open man, whether that teammate is under the basket or spotted up behind the three-point line. Indeed if you've watched Missouri's last two games, against the Bruins and in St. Louis against Illinois, you have seen that sequence play out over and over again.
Pressey is undeniably impressive to watch in real time, and indeed on ESPN's broadcast of the UCLA game Bill Walton was moved to call the Tiger's performance one of the greatest in Pauley Pavilion history. But so far this season, there's been a cost to be paid for all of those penetrations and assists from Pressey.
In a Missouri offense that no longer has Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and Michael Dixon, Pressey's role has quite understandably grown larger. And with added responsibility has come added missed shots: Pressey's two-point accuracy has plunged by 12 full percentage points compared to last season. The working attitudinal rule for Missouri fans should be roughly as follows. A two-point shot attempt by Pressey is probably a bad thing, and a two-point shot attempt by Pressey when Alex Oriakhi is not on the floor is even more likely to be a bad thing.
Oriakhi is a dominant offensive rebounder, and it's not too much to say his work on the offensive boards during the 2011 NCAA tournament was pivotal in winning a national championship for Connecticut. (Though Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb were somewhat helpful as well.) Oriakhi has the ability to change the equation where Pressey's errant two-point shooting is concerned. In the abstract a high-volume player shooting just 35 percent inside the arc is very harmful to any offense. In Frank Haith's reality, however, all those two-point misses are balanced not only by Oriakhi's offensive rebounding but also by Pressey's stellar efficiency on the possessions where he drives and dishes.
Doug McDermott: More Jimmer than Jimmer?
The next time any fan complains of East Coast bias being displayed by "the media," said fan should be required to consider the extraordinary spectacle presented by Doug McDermott. The 6-8 junior plays for a mid-major program located in Omaha, yet he's actually in danger of being overlooked simply because his excellence is so widely and preemptively assumed. McDermott's a virtual shoo-in for first-team All-American, but let's not lose sight of the exceptional season that he is (once again) having.
Creighton opened Missouri Valley Conference play over the weekend with an 87-70 win at home over Evansville, a game in which McDermott scored 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field and a 10-of-11 effort at the line. In other words, just another day at the office for head coach Greg McDermott's son. For the season the younger McDermott is drawing seven fouls per 40 minutes, and making 88 percent of his free throws. Historically McDermott's been much more likely to launch a shot from inside the arc than outside it, but this season he's attempting more threes than ever before. That's a smart move when you're hitting 51 percent of your shots from out there.
Indeed, in terms of combining volume with efficiency, McDermott's efforts so far are worthy of comparison to the season that Jimmer Fredette recorded for Brigham Young in 2010-11, when "Jimmer Mania" was rampant throughout the land. Fredette definitely gets the nod where "volume" is concerned, as he personally accounted for an incredible 38 percent of the Cougars' shots during his minutes. (During his time on the floor this season, McDermott has launched one-third of Creighton's shots.) And put another point in The Jimmer's column for being far more likely to record an assist. Past that, however, the scales tilt in McDermott's favor, as he's markedly more accurate from the floor than Fredette was, while being equally automatic at the line.
Just because we knew coming into the season that McDermott would be good doesn't mean his performance hasn't been noteworthy. In fact with any luck a "Doug Domination" Facebook thread will start up come March. Certainly McDermott has played well enough to go viral.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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