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Evaluating UK's early-season rebounding, 3-point shooting

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Nerlens Noel is averaging a team-leading 8.0 rebounds per game through the first three games of the 2012-13 season. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Nerlens Noel is averaging a team-leading 8.0 rebounds per game through the first three games of the 2012-13 season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
If you had asked me two months ago which would be the biggest problem areas for John Calipari's 2012-13 team, I would have responded with rebounding and 3-point shooting, without hesitation.

Through three games, I would have been right about one of those two things.

Of course, intangible factors like experience and leadership were concerns, but I assumed those wouldn't be issues by the time March rolled around, and I still believe that. Rebounding woes, on the other hand, might be a little harder to kick.

Kentucky has the size and athleticism to be an elite rebounding team, that much is obvious, but that has not yet translated. Reflecting on last season, the Wildcats were the best and most efficient team in the nation, but they became those things without ever being dominant on the boards. According to kenpom.com, the 2011-12 national champions were 21st nationally in offensive rebounding percentage at 37.5 (very good), but just 113th in defensive rebounding percentage at 69.2 (average).

Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were far and away the best rebounders on that team, accounting for 63.2 percent of UK's rebounds. With excellent production from the players who got the bulk of the minutes at the 3, 4 and 5 spots, the Wildcat guards needed worry little about hitting the glass.

Based on early returns, it appears guards on this year's team won't have that luxury.

The top three rebounders through three games in 2012-13 (Nerlens Noel, Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress) have 68 of UK's 99 rebounds, or 68.7 percent. Taken at face value, it might appear UK's starting front court is even better on the boards that last year's, but that's not the case.

First of all, UK has been outrebounded by over four per game so far this season. Noel, Wiltjer and Poythress have combined for 19.0 rebounds per game. Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones averaged 25.0 per game last season.

However, raw numbers can be misleading. With that in mind, we turn again to Ken Pomeroy and his individual rebounding rates. Breaking it up, let's look at the top five players from each of the last two Kentucky teams in terms of defensive and offensive rebounding percentages:

Defensive rebounding percentage
1. Anthony Davis (11-12) - 23.9 (45th nationally)
2. Nerlens Noel (12-13) - 19.1 (373rd nationally)
3. Terrence Jones (11-12) - 16.4
4. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11-12) - 16.1
5. Kyle Wiltjer (12-13) - 14.2

Offensive rebounding percentage
1. Alex Poythress (12-13) - 15.2 (115th nationally)
2. Anthony Davis (11-12) - 11.5 (178th nationally)
3. Terrence Jones (11-12) - 10.6 (263rd nationally)
4. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11-12) - 10.2 (301st nationally)
5. Nerlens Noel (12-13) - 9.6 (477th nationally)

A few observations from these statistics:

First, six of the ten spots belong to players from the 2011-12 team. In both defensive and offensive rebounding, three of the top four spots belong to players from the 2011-12 team. This simply reinforces the idea that last year's team was superior in terms of rebounding.

Next, Poythress might be the best offensive rebounder at UK since DeMarcus Cousins, whose offensive rebounding percentage was an astounding 19.6 in 2009-10. Poythress is a little different though, because almost all of his rebounds come off of his teammates' misses. Cousins much more frequently grabbed his own errant shots. The complete conversation about Poythress' offensive rebounding is one I will explore further at another time.

Finally, how can this year's team improve on the glass? I think we expect incremental gains from Noel, Poythress and Wiltjer, but not significant ones. Expecting them to match the production of last year's frontcourt is probably unrealistic.

Instead, I point to Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein. The pair has averaged a combined 7.0 rebounds per game so far this year, a number that must climb for the Cats to improve. Goodwin, in particular, has been challenged by his coach in this area. Averaging 10 rebounds a game as Coach Cal said after the win over Lafayette, is unlikely, but somewhere between between five and six is not considering his athleticism.

It's reasonable to expect the Wildcats will improve their rebounding as the season goes on. It's not reasonable, however, to expect them to be any better from 3-point range than they have been through three games.

UK entered 2012-13 trying to replace the most accurate 3-point shooter in school history (Doron Lamb) and the player who ranks 10th in school history in 3s made (Darius Miller). You figured Wiltjer would be a consistent threat from the outside, but it was uncertain who else would be.

All the Cats have done through three games (an admittedly tiny sample size) is shoot 50 percent (21 of 42) from beyond the arc, tied for second nationally. It is only the third time in Coach Cal's tenure that a UK team has shot 50 percent from 3 over a three-game stretch. The 2009-10 Cats did it twice in December of that season, including games against Indiana, Austin Peay and Drexel when they hit an astounding 24 of 39 (61.5 percent).

Here's a look at the players who have attempted 3s so far this season:

Kyle Wiltjer - 12-19 (63.2 percent)
Archie Goodwin - 4-6 (66.7 percent)
Julius Mays - 3-9 (33.3 percent)
Alex Poythress - 1-2 (50 percent)
Jarrod Polson - 1-3 (33.3 percent)
Ryan Harrow - 0-2
Brian Long - 0-1

The interesting thing about UK's 3-point shooting is how infrequently the Cats are pulling up from long range. Only Wiltjer has attempted more than nine 3s so far this season and UK has attempted just 24.9 percent of its field goals from long range, which ranks 304th nationally. If the Cats keep up their current pace, 24.9 percent would be lowest percentage of 3-pointers attempted of any of Coach Cal's teams at either Kentucky or Memphis. In spite of their efficiency, the Cats are choosing to shoot 3s primarily as a way to keep the defense honest. That's especially true for Goodwin and Poythress.

Looking ahead, Wiltjer and Goodwin are not going to keep hitting at a 60-plus-percent clip from deep, but the fact that the Cats have hit so consistently from 3 is encouraging. At the very least, it plants the seed in the heads of future opponents that they must guard the line, opening up space for the Cats to do what they'd rather do anyway: attack the rim.

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