Information and analysis on Kentucky players includes contributions from college basketball freelance writer and researcher Nathan Giese.
The Kentucky Wildcats are not the best team in the SEC... even in a year in which Texas A&M has tumbled and Arkansas has stumbled. Imagine saying that before the start of league play. Florida and Auburn should be at the top of any power rankings list in SEC basketball. Whether you wanted to put the Gators or Tigers first is up for debate, but those are the two best teams without much question. Kentucky joins Vanderbilt's most recent opponent, Tennessee, as one of a few teams in the second tier chasing the leaders.
The Wildcats would be in a much worse position heading into Memorial Gym on Saturday if an official had called UK's Wenyen Gabriel for a foul on A&M's Tyler Davis in the final seconds of Tuesday's game between the Cats and Aggies in Rupp Arena. However, that's a foul call which generally won't get made in Rupp. Big Blue was very fortunate to escape with a one-point win in a season which is being played on the ledge every night. Kentucky can be formidable at times, but with more games accumulating and more of the season taking shape, the Wildcats offer no convincing evidence that they are ready or able to separate themselves from the SEC. Virtually every game (except against a bottom-feeder) seems likely to be close. If Kentucky goes through a good stretch in a game, it reliably drives into a pothole moments later and needs several minutes to get unstuck. The good things Kentucky does almost always get cancelled out, giving way to hesitant play combined with inaccurate perimeter shooting.
A key insight: The high-end talent witnessed on last season's Kentucky team -- Malik Monk, De'Aaron Fox -- was so shimmering and conspicuous on the few occasions that it emerged. Kentucky rarely reached its peak, but when it did, the Cats felt like they could do anything.
This season's UK crew does not have that same ceiling of talent. Hamidou Diallo going off is not what Monk was when the current Charlotte Hornet went unconscious for Kentucky. Maybe a transformation lies around the bend. Maybe John Calipari can unlock magic from a team in the way he did for the scuffling 2014 group which turned a No. 8 seed into an NCAA runner-up appearance. However, as things stand, Kentucky is playing at a level which will give the Wildcats a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a bracket in which they'll need to get some help to move past the first weekend. That is the current identity of the Wildcats, if left unchanged. The Calipari factor -- given its ability to effect meaningful change in February -- offers Kentucky fans hope that this team can envision and reach a much higher ceiling, but that is a future hope not intimately connected to present-day reality.
Vanderbilt, then, is not playing one of the better Kentucky teams it has seen this decade. Nevertheless, more than Florida and anyone else in the SEC, Kentucky carries the weight of a brand name. No SEC win owns more cachet and prestige than a scalp against Cal and his Cats. A Vanderbilt season careening in the wrong direction -- with an offense-challenged loss to South Carolina flowing into a defense-poor setback against Tennessee -- arrives at a moment of profound emotional urgency. Being able to take a stand and defeat Kentucky would breathe fresh optimism into Bryce Drew's project and offer legitimate evidence that a late-season sprint to the NIT is still within the realm of possibility. A loss to this particular UK assemblage would represent a deflating moment before Martin Luther King Day, a rather early juncture in a season to feel that various important aspirations lie beyond one's reach.
This is a day for desperation in the positive sense of that term. This is a day for Vanderbilt to shrug off the loss to Tennessee and pour its energy into fixing what went wrong in that second half, all while realizing that VU posted 84 points despite a late-game shooting slump and mediocre free throw shooting. Tennessee's defense throttled Kentucky's offense a week ago, and Vanderbilt made the Vols look very pedestrian at that end of the floor. If the Commodores can take one step beyond their performance against UT, they have more than enough weaponry to torch Kentucky.
Their desperation -- their urgency -- must give them the fuel for the flames.
Here is a look at Kentucky's notable performers:
Kevin Knox: He has probably been the most hit-and-miss player for Kentucky but also probably the best Wildcat on the floor when he does find the range. He in many ways is the sleeping giant who -- if he ever caught fire and stayed hot -- could transform the profile of this team and raise the ceiling alluded to above. He went just 1-of-9 in the loss to Tennessee but had 20 points each against Kansas and Virginia Tech. Knox has taken 70 3-pointers but hitting just 32 percent of those shots. The bulk of his attempts have come on spot-up jumpers and in transition, but there’s a mixture of everything after that.
Knox is also a hit-and-miss defender, allowing just under one point per possession on jumpers, where most of the opponents’ attempts are coming from.
Hamidou Diallo: The 6-foot-5 wing is another mildly effective prospect for Kentucky. It’s a down year for Calipari’s bunch. Diallo has taken the most shots on the team, the most inside the arc, and almost half are in transition. There isn’t one area where Diallo has excelled in, and his metrics are average or worse in every category. He had a good mid-December stretch but has not been imposing in the first weeks of SEC play.
Unlike Knox, however, Diallo is an outstanding defender, holding opponents to 22 percent from the field and 15 percent or less in both spot-ups and pick-and-roll situations.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Though he’s started just three of Kentucky’s 16 games, Shai plays the third-most minutes on the team and stands out as passer (69 assists) and ball hawk (35 steals). He’s also an 85 percent free throw shooter. Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo make an incredible defensive duo. At 6-foot-6, Shai is holding opponents to 27 percent shooting overall. He excels in spot-up and pick-and-roll situations (sound familiar?). Gilgeous-Alexander has been Kentucky's best player in SEC competition, picking up the pace in late December (Louisville and Georgia) at the very time Diallo regressed.
If Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo can flourish at the same time, UK can find another path to improvement.
P.J. Washington: Most of Washington’s offensive output has come front post-ups, though he mixes it up more than most Wildcats. He’s efficient in most situations (aside from transition opportunities) and gets to the free throw line often, though he’s just a 58-percent shooter at the line. Like Knox, Washington is average (at best) as an isolated defender. As a team, Kentucky’s holding opponents to 41 percent from the field on the season. Washington was strong in UK's win over LSU and has steadily evolved this season. Yet, he has not thrown down the dominant performances of previous Kentucky big men.
Quade Green: The 6-foot guard has some sustainability with a 58-percent adjusted field goal rate. He has just 51 assists and 45 3-point attempts on the season, shooting at a 40-percent clip beyond the arc. Green is very good in pick-and-roll, spot-up and transition situations.
Defense is not Green’s game, allowing 40 percent shooting as the primary defender. Opponents have had their way against him in pick-and-roll plays and on spot-up jumpers.
Nick Richards: He is the fifth starter but plays fewer than 20 minutes per game. He’s 6-foot-11, taken 58 shots and averages 5.7 rebounds per game. Essentially, he’s the obligatory big man starter. Not much more to it. He does, however, have 20 blocks. Richard's hands are not reliable in traffic, a problem for a big man. It is hard for the Wildcats to trust him as a back-to-the-basket scorer who receives an entry pass in the low post. It is easier for Richards to crash the glass, grab a loose ball, and put it back. If Kentucky wants to route the ball through Richards for its offense, Vanderbilt and other opponents will not mind allowing that to happen.
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