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Mark Story

Mark Story: John Calipari’s offense is not UK basketball’s primary issue

As Kentucky has limped from the starting gate with four losses in its first 14 games of the 2022-23 men’s college hoops season, John Calipari’s “outmoded” offensive approach has been roasted like your Christmas turkey.

“Their offense is archaic. It’s gotta be the same s--- he was running with the New Jersey Nets,” was the assessment of one coach quoted in an article from The Athletic’s Dana O’Neil which ran under the headline “Is John Calipari now the Jimbo Fisher of college basketball?”

The funny thing about comparisons of Calipari to the Texas A&M head football coach whose offensive approach is widely thought to have gone stale is that, in the case of the UK basketball offense, the underlying metrics are, actually, pretty good.

Through games of Wednesday night, Calipari’s out-of-fashion offense stood 13th in the country in the adjusted offensive efficiency category of the Pomeroy Ratings.

That’s one year after Calipari’s hopelessly-outdated offense finished the season No. 5 in the country in the adjusted offensive efficiency metric.

The prevailing narrative is that Calipari, with his penchant for using two bigs, his deployment of a non-pure-shooting point guard and his team’s lack of overall floor spacing, has let modern offensive basketball pass him by. That storyline was reinforced on a big national stage last month when the Cats shot 21-of-64 in a 63-53 loss to UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Yet as UK prepares to travel to Tuscaloosa to face No. 7 Alabama on Saturday, the numbers suggest that the primary issue that has undermined Kentucky in this and recent seasons is not the Wildcats’ offense.

After the Cats shot 49.1 percent, 44 percent (11-of-25) on three-point tries, in Tuesday night’s 74-71 win over LSU, Tigers head man Matt McMahon commented on the conventional wisdom surrounding Kentucky basketball.

“People keep telling me that they’re struggling, but they’re top 20 in the country in a lot of offensive stats,” McMahon said. “They shoot 39 percent from three and have a guy (Oscar Tshiebwe) that absolutely dominates in the paint, so I really hadn’t seen those struggles. I think they make it tough on you because they do shoot it well from three and they have the best offensive rebounder in basketball when they miss.”

In reality, the slide in Kentucky basketball’s overall fortunes from the Calipari era’s heyday until now largely correlates with a decline in UK’s defensive performance.

Last season in Kentucky’s three best wins of the year, Calipari’s musty offense hung 98 points on North Carolina in Las Vegas, 82 on Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse and 107 on Tennessee in Rupp Arena. Heck, in the embarrassing double-overtime loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the NCAA Tournament, the Cats had 71 points on the scoreboard at the end of regulation.

That should have been enough points to pluck the Peacocks — who had failed to reach 70 points in 18 of 30 games prior to the 2022 NCAA tourney. The reason 71 points weren’t enough for Kentucky to survive and advance was because the Wildcats’ defense ended last season in free fall.

On Feb. 6 of 2022, UK stood No. 6 in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Pomeroy Ratings.

Kentucky finished the season at No. 46.

Even allowing for some stretches of ugly offensive basketball by Kentucky this season, defense has continued to be UK’s bigger issue.

In an 88-72 strafing of Kentucky in November, Gonzaga shot 56.4 percent and scored exactly half its points, 44, in the paint.

During last week’s SEC opener at Missouri, UK scored a robust 45 points in the second half — but allowed Mizzou to score 47 in what became an 89-75 Wildcats’ loss.

In terms of field-goal percentage made, Calipari’s Kentucky offenses have been remarkably consistent. The 2012 NCAA champions made 48.8 percent of their shots. The 2022 team that lost to Saint Peter’s in the round of 64 made 48.3 percent of its field-goal tries.

John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009-10 led a UK team that converted 47.8 percent of its field-goal attempts. Oscar Tshiebwe and Cason Wallace are leading the current Kentucky team in converting 47.3 percent of its shots.

What’s changed for UK from the stretch when the Wildcats were going to four Final Fours in five years from 2011 through 2015 to the past five years, when Kentucky has averaged one NCAA tourney win per season, is field-goal percentage defense.

Of Calipari’s Final Four teams, three of the four held foes below 40 percent on field-goal tries. Over the past eight seasons, including this one to date, UK opponents have shot above 40 percent in six different years.

A big part of that change would seem to be rim protection — or its lack. Calipari’s first seven Kentucky teams all blocked more than 200 shots. None of his six-most recent teams has blocked more than 176 shots.

So whatever one thinks of the need for Calipari to modernize his offensive approach, the numbers suggest that the decline in Kentucky basketball’s fortunes in the second half of the coach’s UK tenure is largely a result of slippage on the defensive end.

©2023 Lexington Herald-Leader. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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