Kentucky’s inability to consistently connect from behind the arc is posing a serious problem in Lexington
That’s what Kentucky shot from three-point range in the regular season in 2014–15, a mark that was O.K. (it ranked 137th in the country) yet sufficient, largely because that juggernaut of a team had so many offensive weapons—especially in the post—that it didn’t need to light it up from the arc.
And when last year’s Wildcats did need a three-pointer, they could turn to Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, who attempted a combined 218 shots from the perimeter and made 41.7% of them.
Flash-forward to 2015–16, and it’s clear that this year’s guard-oriented Kentucky group needs to utilize the three-pointer more than its predecessor. The problem? Night in and night out, the Wildcats can’t seem to buy one.
Ulis is back, but while the sophomore has looked outstanding at times this season (most notably in wins over Duke and Wright State), he has struggled with his shot, shooting 35.1% from the field and just 28.1% from three. Maybe Ulis is simply in a slump, or maybe his shooting has been affected by the fact that he’s drawing a lot more attention from opposing defenses than he was last season.
Remember the 35% mark that last year’s Wildcats averaged from three? Through nine games, this year’s squad has only met that plateau twice, and the other seven games have been flat-out ugly.
Two for 12, 3 for 15, 2 for 10, 3 for 10, 5 for 21, 8 for 25. All of those are three-point lines belonging to UK this season, and that was before the Wildcats went 4 for 19 (21.1%) from behind the arc on Wednesday in an 88–67 win over Eastern Kentucky.
All that adds up to a Wildcat team shooting a dismal 27.5% from three. That’s not just poor, that’s in the bottom of the Division I barrel. There are 351 teams in D-1. When it comes to three-point percentage, Kentucky is ranked No. 326. That’s a ton of potential points left on the floor, which partly explains why some of its point margins in wins (+13 over Albany, +15 over Wright State, +12 over Illinois State) haven’t been as large as we’re accustomed to seeing from John Calipari-coached teams.
Shooting 21% from three might be enough to cut it against Eastern Kentucky in December (though the Colonels and their high-powered offense did provide a few scares at Rupp), but those kinds of performances will leave the Cats with very little room for error in others aspect of the game when they face teams like Louisville and Kansas, or hit conference play. The play of Skal Labissiere has been up and down—as is normal for freshmen big men—and as talented as Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray are at getting to the rim, this team must get its outside shooting going if it wants to reach its potential.
And if its shooting doesn’t improve? Consider Kentucky’s loss to UCLA last week, when the Bruins packed it in the paint on defense to force the Wildcats into attempting 25 threes (they made eight) and several ill-advised long jumpers. The plan worked beautifully for UCLA because Murray was the only Wildcat who proved to be an outside threat and the extra bodies in the paint helped the Bruins shut down Labissiere.
The other concern about Kentucky’s poor three-point shooting so far is that some of its worst outings have come against teams that shouldn’t be posing much of a defensive threat. Eastern Kentucky is ranked No. 333 in the nation in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and while the Cats ultimately poured in 88 points, it should’ve been a game where they could have built some confidence from behind the arc. Instead they went 4 for 19. This doesn’t bode well for when UK faces SEC foes Vanderbilt and Tennessee, who are holding opponents to 29.1% and 29.2% three-point shooting, respectively.
Getting Ulis going from downtown could go a long way toward improving the situation, but when you’re No. 326 in the nation it’s going to take more than one player to see a substantial change. Murray has been streaky from the outside, but considering he’s 18 and has just nine college games to his name, it’s probably a safe bet to assume he’ll find some consistency. The real question is: how soon?
Shooting guard Mychal Mulder was heralded as a sharpshooter when he committed to Calipari in April—he averaged 46.3% from behind the arc as a sophomore in junior college—but he has yet to crack the Cats’ rotation and has logged only 16 minutes total. The assumption would be that Mulder isn’t quite ready to play meaningful minutes for Kentucky, but if he can play the role of a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist, he could be a valuable weapon off the bench.
The good news for Kentucky is that A) it is only December and B) it is an extremely young team that is only scratching the surface of its potential. There’s no reason to assume this poor outside shooting will continue forever, but a 27.5% average through nine games is enough to realize this weakness is not a fleeting trend. Kentucky doesn’t necessarily need to shoot the lights out from deep to achieve its goals this season, and it’s certainly not the Wildcats’ only flaw so far. Even just reaching a respectable level of three-point shooting could take this team from very good to scary good and send a message to any team planning to use the UCLA approach in an effort to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
Time will tell what kind of Kentucky team this will truly be. Will it habitually need to overcome a poor night from behind the arc and hope its opponent isn’t trading twos for threes? Or one that can beat teams with a true inside-outside game, punishing opponents who think they can pack the paint?