When Kentucky suffered a Quad 4 home loss to South Carolina on Jan. 10 and fell to 10-6 (1-3 SEC), it marked the worst start to league play for the Wildcats since the 1986-87 season and brought the program to a reckoning point. The next morning, UK ranked No. 63 in the NET, sitting behind Bradley and well outside the range of teams that usually earn at-large NCAA Tournament bids.
For the SEC's preseason favorites, everything seemed broken and a further implosion loomed. With a trip to No. 5 Tennessee up next, star big man Oscar Tshiebwe said some of his teammates were "not willing to fight" in eyebrow-raising remarks that Tshiebwe then had to smooth over within the locker room. It all amounted to a crisis unlike anything 14th-year coach John Calipari had encountered during his time in Lexington.
Two weeks later, however, the Wildcats appear to be emerging from the storm as they prepare to host No. 9 Kansas in The SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday with a chance to make it five straight wins since that stunning 71-68 loss to the Gamecocks. The Wildcats (14-6, 5-3) are still just a No. 10 seed for the NCAA Tournament, according to CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm. However, they are playing their best basketball of the season with their toughest SEC games — road contests at Alabama and Tennessee — in the rearview mirror.
It all started with a 63-56 win over the Volunteers just four days after the South Carolina loss, and the Wildcats have proven that was no fluke. Their last three wins have come by an average margin of 13 points, sparking hope that UK has found the gear that can take the program to its first NCAA Tournament win since 2019.
As the Jayhawks — losers of three straight and needing a turnaround of their own — prepare to enter Rupp Arena for a clash of the blue bloods, let's examine what has changed for Kentucky to spark the positive transformation we've seen over the past two weeks.
Forced lineup change is working
Kentucky's climb out of its hole began with a bleak outlook for the Tennessee game on Jan. 14. As 11.5-point road underdogs, the Wildcats didn't score for the game's first four and a half minutes. They looked lost without starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who was out due to a shoulder injury.
Wheeler's absence forced Calipari into deploying untested lineup combinations, one of which turned out to be a difference-maker. With UK down 8-0 and looking hapless against the Tennessee defense, Calipari inserted Antonio Reeves for Chris Livingston in the Wildcats' first substitution of the game. That lineup — featuring Reeves, Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin and Tshiebwe — keyed a 13-2 run for the Wildcats that changed the game's complexion.
Big shots and a big game from @ToniooReeves 🔥 pic.twitter.com/yleE13r7IR— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 15, 2023
The lineup also altered the trajectory of Kentucky's season.
The five-man pairing of Reeves, Fredrick, Wallace, Toppin and Tshiebwe logged just 11 total possessions together in Kentucky's first 16 games, per hooplens.com. Against the Volunteers, the grouping played 26 possessions together as the Wildcats sprang to life for an upset win.
Over the past four games, that lineup has logged 69 offensive possessions together, and the results have been excellent. With Wallace at point guard and Fredrick and Reeves playing together, the Wildcats regularly have three outside shooting threats on the floor together, and the lineup combination is averaging 1.26 points per possession over the past four games. By comparison, Kentucky's season mark for points per possessions is just 1.07.
No other two-man grouping in the SEC produces better offensive results for their team than Reeves and Fredrick. The Wildcats enjoy an adjusted team offensive efficiency rating of 117.5 when those two are on the floor together, per evanmiya.com. For comparison, UK's next-best tandem of Reeves and Tshiebwe rates at 113.7 in the same metric. The duo played just 12.6 possessions together per game in the season's first 16 contests but have logged 41.3 possessions per game together over the past four.
Cats playing better defense
Kentucky has found something that works, but it comes with the drawback of a dramatically reduced role for Wheeler, a 5-foot-9 senior leader and the 2021-22 SEC leader in assists at 6.9 per game. Despite logging just 13.7 minutes per game over Kentucky's past three contests since returning from the shoulder injury, Wheeler is still leading the SEC in assists per game again at 5.8.
It's obvious the Wildcats are at the their best when he is coming off the bench, however, and it's more about the defense than the offense. In SEC games, the Wildcats are averaging a respectable 1.03 points per possession offensively with Wheeler on the floor, which puts him in the middle of the pack among UK's rotation players.
However, Kentucky's defense has been at its worst in league play with Wheeler on the floor. The optimum five of Wallace, Reeves, Fredrick, Toppin and Tshiebwe allows just .79 points per possession against SEC opponents. But that figure skyrockets to 1.15 points per possession for opponents when Wheeler is on the floor.
Big O takes it himself off the steal 💪💥 pic.twitter.com/8i5HNvJPEN— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 18, 2023
Improved free-throw shooting
This one is a simple fix. Kentucky is a bad free-throw shooting team, ranking 283rd nationally with a 68% mark. If the percentage holds, this will be UK's worst free-throw shooting squad since the 2012-13 team that ranked 315th nationally with a 64.2% mark and missed the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats have been downright horrendous at the line in their losses, making just 60.6% of their attempts in those six games. UK hit just 7 of 14 attempts in the South Carolina loss and only 5 of 8 against Alabama. The Wildcats also made just 15 of 24 (62.5%) attempts in their loss to Missouri and a laughable 5 of 13 (38.5%) in a loss to UCLA during the CBS Sports Classic in December.
Over their last four games, the Wildcats have improved to 77% from the charity stripe. In total, UK is making 70.8% of its free throws in wins this season, which is markedly better than its free-throw percentage in losses. This is a simple but maddening explanation for some of the Wildcats' struggles. If UK can just be a decent free-throw shooting team, its margin for error clearly increases.
UK shows signs of sustainability
Though Reeves is still coming off the bench, the newfound lineup configuration that pairs him with Fredrick with Wallace at point guard has clearly led to better floor spacing for Kentucky on offense, giving Tshiebwe room to operate in the post. A reduced role for Wheeler also means UK has greater length and versatility defensively. Kansas will test the Wildcats, to be sure, but even if Kentucky loses to the Jayhawks, it appears to have found something sustainable.
In fact, there's a case to be made that Kentucky has yet to hit peak offensive efficiency. The trio of Fredrick, Reeves and Wallace are shooting just 32.9% from 3-point range during UK's four-game winning streak with Wallace and Fredrick both shy of the 30% mark during that stretch. Even still, Kentucky appears to have turned a corner. As Fredrick and and Wallace start shooting better, Kentucky should only improve.
Two weeks ago, the sky was falling. Now, there is reason for optimism at Rupp Arena as Kentucky puts a reinvented version of itself on national display against the Jayhawks on Saturday.