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Home » How John Calipari turned around Kentucky’s once-doomed season before clash vs. Kansas in SEC/Big 12 Challenge
When Kentucky suffered a quad-4 home loss to South Carolina on Jan. 10 and fell to 10-6 (1-3 SEC), it marked and brought the worst start to the league for the Wildcats since the 1986-87 season Program to end a billing point. The next morning, UK ranked 63rd on the NET, behind Bradley and well outside the ranks of teams that normally receive bids at major NCAA tournaments.
Everything seemed broken for the SEC’s preseason favorites and another implosion loomed. With a trip to No. 5 Tennessee next, star big-man Oscar Tshiebwe said some of his teammates were “not ready to fight” in eyebrow-raising remarks that Tshiebwe then had to smooth over in the dressing room. It all came down to a crisis that 14-year coach John Calipari had never experienced during his time at Lexington.
Two weeks later, however, the Wildcats appear to be rising from the storm as they prepare to host No. 9 Kansas in Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge with a chance of five wins since that stunning 71-68 loss in succession to score the gamecocks. The Wildcats (14-6, 5-3) are still just a No. 10 for the NCAA tournament, according to CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm. However, they play their best basketball of the season with their toughest SEC games — street competitions in Alabama and Tennessee — in the rearview mirror.
It all started with a 63-56 win over the Volunteers just four days after the loss in South Carolina, and the Wildcats proved it was no fluke. Their last three victories have come by an average margin of 13 points, raising hope that Britain has found the equipment to take the program to its first NCAA tournament win since 2019.
As the Jayhawks — losers of three straight games and in need of a turnaround of their own — prepare to enter the Rupp Arena for a Blue Bloods clash, let’s examine what changed for Kentucky to spark the positive transformation, that we’ve seen in the past two weeks.
The forced cast change works
Kentucky’s rise from his hole began with a bleak outlook for the Jan. 14 game in Tennessee. As an 11.5-point underdog, the Wildcats didn’t score in the first four and a half minutes of the game. They looked lost without starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who was out with a shoulder injury.
Wheeler’s absence forced Calipari to use untested line-up combinations, one of which proved crucial. With UK trailing 8-0 and looking unlucky against the Tennessee defense, Calipari substituted Antonio Reeves for Chris Livingston in the Wildcats’ first substitution of the game. That lineup — featuring Reeves, Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin and Tshiebwe — resulted in a 13-2 run for the Wildcats that changed the complexion of the game.
The lineup also changed the course of Kentucky’s season.
The five-man duo of Reeves, Fredrick, Wallace, Toppin and Tshiebwe recorded just 11 total possessions in Kentucky’s first 16 games, according to hooplens.com. Against the Volunteers, the grouping 26 possessions teamed up as the Wildcats came alive for an upset win.
In the last four games, this line-up has recorded 69 offensive possessions combined and the results have been excellent. With Wallace at point guard and Fredrick and Reeves playing together, the Wildcats regularly have three outside shooting threats on the floor together, and the lineup combination has averaged 1.26 points per possession over their past four games. For comparison, Kentucky’s season mark for points per possession is just 1.07.
No other two-man grouping in the SEC has better offensive scores for their team than Reeves and Fredrick. The Wildcats enjoy an Adjusted Team Offensive Efficiency Rating of 117.5 when these two are on the ground together, according to evanmiya.com. For comparison, Britain’s next best tandem of Reeves and Tshiebwe sits at 113.7 on the same metric. The duo have combined for just 12.6 possessions per game in the first 16 competitions of the season, but have combined for 41.3 possessions per game in the last four competitions.
Cats play better defense
Kentucky found something that works, but it has the downside that Wheeler, a 5-foot-9 senior leader and 2021-22 SEC leader on assists at 6.9 per game, has a dramatically reduced role. Though he’s clocked just 13.7 minutes per game in Kentucky’s last three contests since returning from the shoulder injury, Wheeler again leads the SEC in assists per game with 5.8.
However, it’s evident that the Wildcats are at their best when he comes off the bench, and it’s more about defense than offense. In SEC games, the Wildcats score a respectable 1.03 points per ball possession offensively with Wheeler on the ground, which puts him in the middle of the field among the rotation players in Great Britain.
However, Kentucky’s defense was at its worst in league play when Wheeler was down. Wallace, Reeves, Fredrick, Toppin and Tshiebwe’s optimal five allow for just .79 points per possession against SEC opponents. But that number goes up to 1.15 points per possession for opponents when Wheeler is on the ground.
Improved Free Throw Shooting
This is a simple fix. Kentucky is a poor free throw shooting team, ranking 283 nationally with 68%. If the percentage is correct, this will be Britain’s worst free-throw team since the 2012-13 team, which was ranked 315th nationally with 64.2% and missed the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats were nothing short of horrific in their losses, making just 60.6% of their tries in those six games. UK hit just 7 of 14 tries in the South Carolina loss and just 5 of 8 against Alabama. The Wildcats also made just 15 of 24 (62.5%) attempts in their loss to Missouri and a paltry 5 of 13 (38.5%) in a loss to UCLA during December’s CBS Sports Classic.
In the last four games, the Wildcats are up 77% against the charity streak. Overall, this season Great Britain makes 70.8% of their free throws as wins, which is significantly better than their free throw percentage in losses. This is a simple but annoying explanation for some of the Wildcats’ fights. If UK can only be a decent free throw team, their error rate increases significantly.
Britain shows signs of sustainability
Although Reeves is still coming off the bench, the newfound lineup configuration that pairs him with Fredrick and Wallace as point guards has clearly resulted in better ground clearance for Kentucky on offense and given Tshiebwe room to act on the post. A reduced role for Wheeler also means UK has greater length and versatility defensively. Kansas will, of course, test the Wildcats, but even if Kentucky loses to the Jayhawks, it looks like it’s found something sustainable.
Indeed, there are arguments that Kentucky has not yet reached peak offensive efficiency. The trio of Fredrick, Reeves and Wallace shoot just 32.9% from 3-point range during the UK’s four-game winning streak, with Wallace and Fredrick both missing the 30% mark during that stretch. Still, Kentucky seems to have turned the corner. As Fredrick and Wallace start shooting better, Kentucky should only improve.
Two weeks ago the sky collapsed. Now there’s reason for optimism at the Rupp Arena as Kentucky put on a reinvented version of themselves for a national show against the Jayhawks on Saturday.