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Kentucky Wildcats
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.

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PJ Washington has blossomed into an SEC Player of the Year candidate and potential NBA lottery pick in his sophomore season. On a team filled with prep All-Americans, Washington has stood out as a consistent source of production. More than any other Wildcat, Washington has proven to be indispensable to the team. In this edition of Hoops Insight, I dive into the data to show just how indispensable Washington is. Can UK survive foul trouble or injury to their sophomore star? Before that, here's the stats profile for UK in the two games without Reid Travis:

Stats profile for UK vs Auburn & Arkansas, Feb 23-26 

What You Should Know: The on/off court difference in adjusted margin is bigger for PJ Washington than for any UK player this season. The stats speak pretty loudly; when Washington is on the court:
  • UK is +304 in 1368 possessions, with an adjusted margin of +0.34 points per possession
  • UK shoots 55% on 2s and 38% on 3s for an eFG% of 56%
When Washington is out of the game:
  • UK is +12 in 455 possessions, with an adjusted margin of +0.13 points per possession
  • UK shoots 46% on 2s and 27% on 3s for an eFG% of 45%
The unfortunate fact is that Washington is the most foul-prone starter for UK. He averages 3.5 fouls committed per 40 minutes, and has 9 games this season where he's picked up 4 or more fouls. 1 of those games was the opener against Duke, which was an extreme outlier; for now we'll exclude that from our analysis. In the 8 other games where he got into foul trouble, UK fell apart without Washington:
  • With PJ, UK was +77 in 377 possessions with an adjusted margin of +0.34 points per possession; UK has an eFG% of 56% in these games with PJ in
  • When PJ sat in these games, UK was +1 in 147 possessions with an adjusted margin of +0.11 points per possession; UK has an eFG% of 40% during this time
 In short, foul trouble for PJ Washington is a very real risk for Kentucky this postseason. There is some good news; UK had 1 game where Washington had foul trouble but UK played fine without him. That game was January 22 against Mississippi State, where UK was +11 in 48 possessions with Washington and +6 in 19 possessions without him.

What Is Happening? Even in the Mississippi State game, UK struggled to shoot with Washington out. They posted an eFG% of just 47% with him out, compared to 56% with him in. Their shooting defense was a bit worse with Washington out, as the Bulldogs had an eFG% of 34% when Washington played and 38% when he sat. So how did the Wildcats manage to extend their lead despite sliding backwards in these stats? Quite simply, they made up for it in shot volume and free throws.

UK lost their sizable shooting advantage when Washington sat, but UK managed to make up for this by generating more opportunities when Washington sat. Teams generate shot volume by avoiding turnovers and getting offensive rebounds; UK got better at both of these when Washington sat against Mississippi State. They turned the ball over on 23% of possessions with PJ in, and 19% with him out; the Cats grabbed 32% of the offensive rebounds with PJ in and 45% with him out. UK also did a great job of getting to the free throw line, as they took 13 free throws when Washington sat and 9 with him in. This is even more impressive when you consider that PJ played over twice as many possessions as he sat.

Kentucky also had success in this game by focusing more energy on the defensive end of the floor. The Hagans/Quickley backcourt combo in particular did a very nice job of challenging ballhandlers. This resulted in more difficult shots, as it has for most of the season; opponents have a 43% eFG% against this duo, compared to 48% for the season against UK.

What Does This Mean for UK? If Washington gets into foul trouble, UK needs to accept that their offense is going to bog down. They need to resist the urge to take 2 point jumpers, which is a bad habit for the Cats. Instead, UK should look to drive into the lane aggressively; against Mississippi State, this led to easy dump-off passes to big men, offensive rebound opportunities, or free throws. More importantly, however, UK should focus their efforts on the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats have several strong defenders and can make enough hay on that side of the ball to tread water when Washington sits.

The Hagans/Quickley backcourt has been able to defend well and draw free throws at a higher rate than UK's season average; UK should give this duo a shot if Washington has to sit. They also shouldn't be afraid to play the Richards/Montgomery frontcourt duo, as they've done a great job on the offensive boards and the strong perimeter D can help cover up for any frontcourt defensive deficiencies.

In my view, foul trouble for Washington is the biggest risk for UK. Over and over again, UK has struggled to find lineups who can hold onto a lead without PJ. If UK can stick to some of they key principles I've identified here, they probably have a decent shot of overcoming foul trouble. If they don't, UK could suffer a bad enough stretch to end their season prematurely. 
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