Kentucky Basketball has turned its season around behind a lineup change. How will they continue to play at a high level and continue the winning streak?
There was no light at the end of the tunnel. Signs were being held up that were begging for John Calipari to leave for Texas and then, Big Blue Nation watched as their beloved Cats fell to the 214th-ranked team via KenPom. Everyone was out on Kentucky Basketball and it appeared that the Cats were potentially going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Then the trip to Knoxville happened.
Kentucky rallied down early without Sahvir Wheeler to stun the number five team in the country in Tennessee by a final score of 63-56. A couple of days later, Oscar Tshiebwe went for 37 points and 24 rebounds as Kentucky battled back again to get a double-digit home win over Georgia. All of the sudden, Lexington had life again, the season wasn’t lost and Kentucky was squarely back in the NCAA Tournament picture going into Saturday’s tilt at Rupp Arena against a red-hot Texas A&M team.
How Kentucky bounced back from South Carolina loss?
It was always known that Kentucky had the talent. They returned the national player of the year, a point guard who led the SEC in assists, and added some really good transfers and freshmen. For the Cats, it was just about Calipari and his staff finding the right mix.
Wheeler has been a key player for Kentucky in the past year and a half. He’s one of the best passers in the country, handles the ball, and will pressure other guards full court. However, Wheeler being out at Tennessee did something that John Calipari might not have wanted to do: Try a different lineup for an extended period.
While the lineup that turned the tide wasn’t the lineup that started the game, Cason Wallace, C.J. Fredrick, Antonio Reeves, Jacob Toppin, and Oscar Tshiebwe are the five that won Kentucky both the Tennessee and Georgia games.
Why that lineup works
It was mentioned above that Wheeler does a lot of great things for Kentucky and while him being on the bench means you lose his playmaking, with Reeves in the game Kentucky gets a different kind of playmaking. Reeves can get in the lane and score himself while Wheeler tends to make plays for others. Reeves is also an overall more efficient offensive player (112.1 ORtg vs Wheeler’s 104.7) and is a much higher volume three-point shooter. With Wallace, Fredrick and Reeves on the floor together, it makes it much harder to double Tshiebwe in the post and Toppin gives you another good offensive rebounder with more threes going up.
The lineup solves part of the problem
The numbers don’t lie. Kentucky’s lineup outscored Tennessee 42-34 and Georgia 37-19. Every other lineup combined was outscored in both of those games (via @EvanMiya). The reality of the situation is that while the A+ lineup is fantastic, Calipari can’t just play those five the whole game. There needs to be a lineup that he can use with Wheeler, Daimion Collins, Chris Livingston or other players. Calipari can keep the rotation as short as he likes, but there need to be other players that step up to accomplish what Kentucky would like to.
For now, Kentucky has found a spark. That spark will keep them afloat, but for the Cats to regain the expectations from the start of the season, this lineup is just a piece of the puzzle.