In 2014, the Kentucky Wildcats entered NCAA tournament with a 24-10 record, having lost three of their last four regular season games. On Selection Sunday, John Calipari’s squad was assigned a No. 8 seed.Led by Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, James Young and the Harrison twins, the Wildcats peaked at the right time and made it all the way to the 2014 national title game, where they fell to Connecticut. Still, it was a grand accomplishment for a group that was under heavy scrutiny through an up-and-down regular season.
Ring any bells, Kentucky fans? The 2015-16 edition of the Wildcats is supremely talented, but at times, maddeningly inconsistent. The Cats are 16-6, and their .727 winning percentage this year is higher than the .706 mark they took into the 2014 NCAA tournament.
So does this year’s Kentucky team have a shot at replicating its 2014 success? Let’s compare and contrast some key factors.
|C Willie Cauley-Stein (6.8 ppg, 2.9 bpg)||C Alex Poythress (10.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg)|
|PF Julius Randle (15.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg)||PF Derek Willis (6.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg)|
|SF James Young (14.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg)||SF Isaiah Briscoe (10.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg)|
|SG Aaron Harrison (13.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg)||SG Jamal Murray (17.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg)|
|PG Andrew Harrison (10.9 ppg, 4.0 apg)||PG Tyler Ulis (16.2 ppg, 6.1 apg)|
Randle was a throwback for the 2013-14 Wildcats, a relentless battering ram in the post that could save Kentucky’s offense when nothing else was working. That season, the Cats finished 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and they did it without hoisting many 3’s (and for good reason – Kentucky finished 215th in the nation in 3-point percentage).
With that said, the Wildcats absolutely pummeled people on the offensive glass, collecting 41.9 percent of their own misses (second in the country). The spacing on that team was not ideal, but with Randle, Young and the Harrisons, Kentucky played a bully-ball style that could overpower opponents.
The 2015-16 Wildcats are actually slightly worse from behind the 3-point line than their counterparts from two years ago, and they rebound 38.9 percent of their own misses – a good figure, but not extraordinary. Kentucky currently ranks 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency but has one thing going for it: Calipari’s 2013-14 squad didn’t have a point guard as good as Tyler Ulis is today. Still, the edge has to go to the elder Wildcats here – though if Skal Labissiere continues to trend upward and Jamal Murray’s hot shooting nights come more frequently, that is subject to change.
Last year’s Kentucky team featured one of the best defenses in college basketball history, but the two units we’re discussing here are merely decent.
2013-14 Kentucky finished the season 41st in defensive efficiency; right now, Kentucky is 51st. The trio of Ulis, Murray and Isaiah Briscoe is probably a bit better in defending the perimeter than Young and the Harrisons were, mainly because Briscoe is an absolute one-man wrecking crew in hounding ball-handlers.
This season’s Wildcats have nobody to protect the rim like Cauley-Stein could, though again, if Labissiere continues to develop, he could wind up in the same neighborhood.
In 2013-14, Cauley-Stein posted a defensive rating of 91.5 – outside of Randle, no other Kentucky player clocked in at below 100. Even if the Wildcats’ perimeter defense is slightly better now than it was then, it might not matter, because a shot-blocker like Cauley-Stein can cover up a lot of mistakes.
The 2013-14 Wildcats get a slight edge on defense.
Potential obviously isn’t a tangible number to digest, but it would seem as though the 2015-16 Wildcats still have plenty of room to grow. No player in college basketball has Labissiere’s combination of length, athleticism and shooting stroke; now he just needs to put it all together on the court. It’s been a struggle for him on both ends, but if everything clicks at the right time, nobody is going to want to face Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.
It would also be fair to suggest that Ulis has room to improve as a shooter, too. The Kentucky point guard shot almost 43 percent from distance as a freshman; he’s just a tick above 30 percent as a sophomore. Every other area of his game has improved from last season, and it’s likely that some of the slippage is due to having to shoulder more of the burden on offense.
But his shooting has perked up of late. In UK's last five games, Ulis is draining 39 percent of his triples. If he hovers around the 40 percent mark, Kentucky could turn out to be a force in March.
This is 2015-16 Kentucky's main advantage over 2013-14 Kentucky – Randle and Young were beasts from the time they set foot in Lexington. Though frustrating for UK fans, it’s possible that this year’s crop of freshmen might just take a little more seasoning.
Or, they simply might not be as good as those guys were. It depends on if your glass is half full or half empty.
The rest of the field
Similar to 2014, in 2016, there doesn’t seem to be a dominant team in college basketball.
Two years ago, a No. 1, 2, 7 and 8 seed rounded out the Final Four. This year could offer something similar, and that bodes in Kentucky’s favor.
Is a title run unlikely, based on Kentucky’s most recent loss to Tennessee and overall inconsistency? Perhaps. But based on 2014, Calipari has shown the ability to save his team’s best for the month of March.
Kentucky fans are hoping he can do it one more time in 2016.