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Kentucky Wildcats
After 1 game, this UK season looked headed for disaster; after 31, it looks headed for a possible Final Four berth. While it wasn't evident in the opening loss to Duke, this Kentucky team turned out to be quite good at pulling out victories in close games. In this edition of Hoops Insight, I'll explore the deciding factors that make these Cats so clutch.

First, here's the stats profile for UK for the regular season (excluding garbage time, as always):
Stats Profile for UK, 2018-19 regular season

What You Should Know: Kentucky has played 19 games this season in which one team had a lead of less than 10 points in the last 10 minutes. The Wildcats are 16-3 in those games, including wins over UNC, UofL, Kansas, Auburn, and Florida (twice!). While UK has gotten off to some slow starts, they've had a pretty strong finishing kick. If we separate the game into opening (first 10 min), middle (10-30 min), and closing (last 10 min + OT) segments, we can see how adept the Wildcats are at closing games:


While UK has some shooting jitters early in games, they become dead-eye shooters by the final stretch.They turn the ball over less during this crucial stretch as well. This contributes to their points per 100 possessions jumping significantly, and their adjusted margin per 100 possessions staying at an elite +28.5. Keep in mind, this excludes garbage time, so this doesn't count blowout wins where UK continues to run up the score. 

We can further separate UK's end game performance by the margin of the score. When the game is within 10 points or less, UK is at their best:

An adjusted margin of +51.8 points per 100 possessions is absurd. Per KenPom.com, this year's Virginia team is at +37.1. That's the highest mark since he began tracking, and UK is almost 50% better than that late in close games!

What Is Happening? As the stats above lay out pretty well, UK becomes a devastatingly good offensive team late in games, especially close ones. In fact, nearly every UK player makes an offensive leap late in close games, compared to their full season stats:

 
Take a look at the eFG% stats for the UK players late in close games. Every single one has a higher eFG% in these situations than their full season averages, except for Reid Travis. Even in that case, Travis' offensive role decreases drastically late, as he usually takes 18% of UK's shots when he's playing but only 10% during these late close games. Every other one of UK's top 6 has an effective FG% above 60% late in close games, which is just a stunning number. For reference, only 92 D-1 players have en eFg% above 60% for the season. Keldon Johnson has a team-high 68% eFG% in these spots, that would be the 7th best figure for any D-1 player. Tyler Herro's 65% would rank 20th nationally. More impressively, Herro does this while taking 25% of UK's shots in these situations. No guard in the top 20 nationally in eFG% takes more than 21% of their team's shots, so this is a staggering combination of volume and efficiency. 

Additionally, both Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley reduce their turnover rates in these crucial moments. Turnovers have been a sore spot for Hagans especially this season, but he cuts his turnover rate in half late in close games. This allows UK to get the most out of their offensive brilliance by simply keeping the ball in their end of the court.

What Does This Mean for UK? This is a great sign for UK's postseason chances, for two clear reasons. First, postseason games are likely to be close, and UK has demonstrated that they are very good at navigating those situations. The fact that UK has several close wins over other strong teams likely gives them an additional boost of confidence, should those situations arise in elimination games.

Second, UK's offense late in games is not overly reliant on any one player's skill. While PJ Washington does take an outsized portion of UK;s shots late (31%!), every UK rotation player is outstanding. Opponents can't gameplan to take away UK's weapons late, because everyone on UK is a weapon. UK's firepower in close games makes it very likely that the Cats will have some memorable clutch moments this postseason.
First, I want to thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. At Hoops Insight, I hope to use data to find insights that reveal things you didn't realize about the Kentucky Wildcats. I'm using play-by-play data to track what's happening, who's doing it, and who is in the game, in order to show you things the box score can't. Check out my past newsletters in the Hoops Insight Archive, and read about the stats I like to use in my stats glossary.

If you have any questions about things I'm saying, the data behind it, or if you just want to debate a point, feel free to contact me on Twitter at @hoopsinsights or email at sean@hoopsinsight.com. I'd love your feedback on the newsletter and how I can improve. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy my work.
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