Why a lack of executing fundamentals will doom UK in the NCAAs
The Kentucky Wildcats have had, by most standards, a very good season. Twenty-five wins out of thirty games by a squad that is called young, even by conservative estimates, constitutes a decent year. If you told a lot of fans at the beginning of the season that this team would eke out twenty-five wins, a lot of them would have taken the offer on the spot. But the way the Cats have gone about getting those victories has a lot of Cat fans worried. Why has this team been so hard to figure? And how does that translate into the NCAA tournament? What will this team do in the post season? Unless some things change in a hurry, the light at the proverbial end of the tunnel is, indeed, a train coming the other direction.
The biggest problem Kentucky has had this season, is executing fundamentally on a consistent basis. And when is doing just that more important than in the post season? If a team is not doing the little things it takes to be successful consistently during the regular season, then how can they survive when everybody brings it up a notch during March madness?
History tends to prove my theory with statistics over the past few seasons. As we enter the tournament, I'll focus on two areas that have to change for Kentucky to make a run deep into the later rounds. The Wildcats had a streak late during the season in which they were outrebounded by their opponent in six straight games. They were also beat on the boards in eleven of their last 15 games this season. Rebounding is obviously a problem area. Another is free throw shooting. The Cats were beaten in free throw percentage in their last seven games. Let's take a look at each historically.
With rebounding, which is all about technique (at least that's what former Cat Cameron Mills keeps telling me), if you rebound better than your opponent by a wide margin, you can pretty much write your own ticket to the later rounds of the tournament.
In the 2003-04 and the 2002-03 seasons, Kentucky's opponent had more rebounds in only seven and eight games those years, respectively. This year, the Wildcats have already been outrebounded in thirteen of thirty games.
The other stat to look at is free throw shooting. Kentucky is on pace to have the worst season free throw percentage in the last five years and the third worst in the last ten years. Last season, UK shot 65% or less from the charity stripe in only eight games, but was still a second round casualty. In 2002-03, the Cats were a wreck from the free throw line, shooting 65% or less on free throws a whopping eleven times, managing to eke their way into the finals of the region. This year? This may hurt a little bit. The Wildcats have had a rough time this year, shooting 65% or less in a monstrous 13 games. And we still have the tourney to go. To compare, I bring you the national championship team of the 1995-96 season. That team shot the best from the free throw line of any other team in the past ten years, connecting 71.3% of the time. The only other team to shoot over 70% for the season was the 2002-03 squad, which shot 70.4% and made their way to the regional final.
So fundamentals, as we all know, are important. But for the Kentucky Wildcats to make a serious run at the championship this year, they will have to improve immediately at these key areas. Otherwise, Tubby Smith and his young team will watch the Final Four just like you and I…from the couch.