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John Clay

John Clay: Is this Kentucky basketball team improving? A closer look by the numbers.

This Kentucky men’s basketball season hits its 10th game on Saturday when the Wildcats travel to New York to take on UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic.

John Calipari’s club improved to 7-2 with Saturday’s 69-59 victory over the Yale Bulldogs at Rupp Arena. The Cats are 6-0 at home, 0-1 on the road and 1-1 on neutral floors. They are 0-1 against ranked teams, having fallen to then-No. 2 Gonzaga 88-72 in Spokane.

Here’s the big question: Is Kentucky improving? Is this a better basketball team after nine games than it was on Nov. 7?

Let’s break it down.

Offense: Before Sunday’s slate of college basketball games, Kentucky ranked 17th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Cats shot the ball 50 percent against a defensive-minded Yale team that was holding opponents to 36.9 percent from the floor. In its two losses, UK shot 38.6 percent against Michigan State and 39.1 percent against Yale. Overall, UK is shooting 46.9 percent. Last year’s team shot 48.3.

Three-point shooting: In home games, Kentucky is 52 of 124 from three-point range for 52.4 percent. It went a combined 13-for-50 (26 percent) in the loss to Michigan State in Indianapolis and the loss to Gonzaga in Spokane. It was a sparkling 9 of 15 (60 percent) beyond the arc in the win over Michigan in London. Overall, this team is shooting 39.2 percent from three-point range. Last year’s team shot 34.7.

Defense: Pomeroy’s numbers place the Cats seventh nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Only twice have the Cats allowed more than the dreaded 1.0 points per possession — 1.026 vs. Michigan State and 1.158 vs. Gonzaga. Only Gonzaga has shot better than 50 percent vs Calipari’s team. The Zags hit 56.4 percent of their shots. Overall, UK’s opponents are shooting 38.1 percent from the floor. Last year, the Cats held foes to 41.4 percent shooting from the floor.

Rebounding: Oscar Tshiebwe missing the first two games after knee surgery skews the numbers. Oscar did play in UK’s two losses and the Cats were outrebounded in both. But Oscar wasn’t nearly 100 percent. He’s closer now — 95 percent he said after Saturday’s performance. And Kentucky became the first team this season to outrebound Yale. “By one,” said Calipari of the 31-30 margin, “but we did outrebound them.”

Turnovers: With all eyes on Sahvir Wheeler, UK’s point guard has cut down on his miscues. He’s turned it over just 15 times in his eight games — Wheeler missed the opener with a leg injury — an average of less than two per game. Last season, he averaged three turnovers per game.

Blocked shots: We were supposed to see a better shot-blocking team this season. Last year’s Cats averaged 4.2 per game. So far, the Cats have blocked 51 shots in nine games, an average of 5.7 per game. That number will rise if Ugonna Onyenso and Daimion Collins earn more playing time.

Free throws: Sorry. Had to bring it up. These Cats are just 115 of 168 at the foul line after going 7 of 10 against Yale. They were 10 of 20 against Michigan on Dec. 4 nearly a month after going 16 of 28 in the opener against Howard. It’s a problem and Calipari knows it. He’s mandated more free-throw shooting drills in practice.

Overall: You’d have to say that this is a better team this week than it was the first week. And you’d have to say there are areas of concern. Jacob Toppin has been spotty, at best. Sharpshooter CJ Fredrick is in a shooting slump. Collins isn’t yet up to speed after missing time after the death of his father. And Calipari is clearly still experimenting with lineups.

The competition will get tougher. SEC play is around the corner. No. 8 Alabama beat No. 1 Houston in Houston on Saturday. Tennessee is ranked No. 7 after beating Kansas by 14 points in the Bahamas. Arkansas is ranked No. 9. Auburn is at No. 11. An undefeated Mississippi State is ranked No. 23.

“I hope you could see we’re executing better,” Calipari said Saturday.

We do see improvement, but there’s room for more.

©2022 Lexington Herald-Leader. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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