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Kentucky Lost To Evansville In November. Now It’s Back Atop The SEC.

Less than four months ago, Kentucky became a national punchline after paying nearly six figures to Evansville for the privilege of beating the top-ranked team in its own arena.1 On Saturday, the Wildcats and head coach John Calipari claimed their 49th regular-season SEC championship.

“All of Coach Cal’s teams get better at the end of the year,” guard Immanuel Quickley remarked in November after the upset.

Leave it to the underclassman to hit the nail on the head.

Kentucky has won 16 of its 18 games since Christmas, including the last eight in a row. Five of those wins2 came against opponents featured in the top 35 of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. While Calipari would sooner brief opposing coaches on the Wildcats’ playbook than answer Evansville-related questions, he’s undeniably overseeing an upgraded version of his team as the calendar flips to March. And no player on his roster has evolved more than Quickley.

The reinsertion of the sophomore into the starting lineup coincided with Kentucky’s second-half surge. The team is 12-1 since Quickley’s return to a starting role on Jan. 18, and he has rapidly assembled a case for SEC Player of the Year.

On a roster relatively low on offensive talent, Quickley is a card-carrying scorer, having finished in double figures in 18 consecutive games. According to Synergy Sports, he ranks between the 80th and 100th percentiles in overall scoring efficiency (1.09 points per possession), spot-up scoring (1.07), transition scoring (1.2) and scoring out of the pick-and-roll as a ballhandler (0.9). And when the shot clock wanes and Kentucky needs a bucket, no player in the country3 scores more points per possession in isolation (1.4).

As college basketball has largely gone the way of the 3-pointer, Calipari’s teams have regularly abstained in their dribble-drive motion offense. This figures to be the ninth consecutive season that Kentucky will finish outside the top 270 in 3-point attempt rate, a streak not lost on Big Blue Nation. But Calipari has a marksman in Quickley, who is shooting 42 percent from deep and ostensibly has been given a perennial green light. By true shooting percentage, Quickley’s season exceeds those of former Kentucky players Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, Tyler Herro and Jamal Murray, all of whom currently hold substantial roles in the NBA.

There are few if any players at the college level with Quickley’s off-the-ball motor, which is seemingly endless. Most of Kentucky’s offensive sets involve him whizzing around pindowns, attacking open space and gassing his defender throughout the shot clock. Quickley isn’t just a knockdown shooter; he has a dribble-drive game capable of breaking down an opposing defense and slicing to the rim. Inside the arc, his go-to tool is a floater, which accounts for more points per game than any player in the SEC, according to Synergy Sports.

He’s exceptionally crafty at drawing fouls, barreling into opposing forwards or shot-faking his way into contact. As Auburn found out last weekend, this can be devastating: Quickley connects on more than 92 percent of his attempts from the stripe. That savvy has played out in conference play, where he’s taking nearly seven free throws per game, the most by a Kentucky guard since at least 2011.

Over the past 13 games, Quickley has blossomed from role player to the team’s offensive lynchpin. He’s sopping up a team-high 25.1 percent of possessions over that stretch and has accounted for nearly half of the team’s 3-pointers, according to data provided by Pivot Analysis. Despite starting barely half of the team’s games this season, Quickley currently ranks 16th in usage rate in the Calipari Kentucky era.

He’s also part of Kentucky’s tenacious defensive backcourt. As a unit, Kentucky is holding opponents to under 30 percent from beyond the arc. And while reigning conference defensive player of the year Ashton Hagans draws most of the attention and may be on his way to a second-straight award, Quickley has quietly made a huge leap on the defensive end. With strong reflexes and quick hands in the passing lane, he has ably fielded most assignments thrown his way — including Louisville’s Jordan Nwora, the second-leading scorer in the ACC, whom he helped hold to 8 points.

The biggest leap for Kentucky this season has been its transition defense, which currently cedes the 11th-fewest points per game in transition. At least some of that performance must be credited to Quickley, who deftly navigates passing lanes on the break alongside Hagans and Tyrese Maxey.

With Quickley on the floor, the Wildcats score 117 points per 100 possessions, the highest mark with any one player, according to data provided by Pivot Analysis. When he sits, the team’s offensive rating craters to 98.7, the lowest mark for any one Kentucky player. Quickley’s 18.7 on-off net rating differential also represents the largest dropoff of any player on the roster.

In many ways, this isn’t a traditional Kentucky team under Calipari. After years of helping set the national standard in offensive rebounding, this team is merely average on the glass. “Playing three point guards, you’re not going to be a great offensive rebounding team,” Calipari said recently. By Kentucky’s bloated standards under Calipari, this isn’t a terribly strong shooting team, nor is it one that takes care of the ball. But it has also weaponized the free throw to a degree no prior team under Calipari has, and the Wildcats are facilitating on 53.4 percent of made baskets, which is the program’s best share since 2015, when they went 38-1 and reached the Final Four.

After hitting rock bottom in November, Kentucky has found plenty of answers in Quickley, its most integral component and go-to scorer. And its broader 3-point ambivalence notwithstanding, Calipari has a certified sniper on his hands. That could prove invaluable come tournament time.

Footnotes

  1. Evansville went 0-18 in the Missouri Valley, becoming the first program to both knock off the nation’s top-ranked team and post zero conference wins in the same season.

  2. Louisville, Texas Tech, LSU, Florida and Auburn.

  3. With at least 25 isolations.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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