What’s behind Kentucky basketball’s offensive explosion? Pumping up the pace.

·4 min read

John Calipari’s teams don’t play just one way. His mode of operation is to judge his collection of talent first, then decide which style fits best. This year, with this team, the Kentucky basketball coach made his decision early.

“In the summer, we spent four months, sixth months just running and flying, and obviously you guys are seeing just how fast we can play,” point guard Sahvir Wheeler said on Saturday. “So, for us to be able to play that fast, we must make shots, take care of the ball and make quality decisions. Games like these are going to happen every once in awhile.”

The game Kentucky played Saturday against archrival Tennessee only happens once in a long while.

The Wildcats shot a blistering 67.9 percent from the floor, the best single-game shooting percentage in the Calipari era. “It was almost like they had a magnet in the rim,” Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said afterward.

Kentucky scored 107 points, the most ever against Tennessee in the long history of the basketball border war. The Volunteers shot 53.4 percent from the floor on the way to scoring 79 points, their highest total in a month. And they still lost by 28. It was UT’s largest loss to UK since a 74-45 shellacking in the 2010 SEC Tournament.

Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler (2) was challenged by Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. Wheeler finished with 21 points and eight assists while Chandler had 17 points and three assists.
Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler (2) was challenged by Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. Wheeler finished with 21 points and eight assists while Chandler had 17 points and three assists.

Consider this: The last four seasons, Calipari’s clubs failed to score 100-plus points in a game. This year’s team has done it twice — a 100-60 thumping of Robert Morris on Nov. 12 and Saturday’s trouncing of Tennessee. The 2019-20 and 2020-21 teams topped 90 points just one time in each season. This team has already turned that trick six times.

To score more, the coach not only recruited better shooters — Kellan Grady and TyTy Washington joining Davion Mintz — but demanded his team pump up the pace. He named son and grad assistant Brad “sprint coordinator” to keep track of how often each player sprints the floor. And Cal has stuck to it. He chastised Oscar Tshiebwe recently for poor sprint numbers.

“I’m on him to run up and down the floor,” Calipari said after Oscar’s 30 points and 13 rebounds at Vanderbilt last week.

Another reason for the run game? Sahvir Wheeler. The 5-foot-9 transfer from Georgia is a Wheeler/dealer who stays on the fast setting. In the past, Wheeler has gone too fast. He averaged 4.4 turnovers a game last season as a Bulldog. But with maturity has come better, quicker decisions.

Take Saturday, Wheeler’s return after missing two games with a neck injury. Kentucky went 2-0 in Wheeler’s absence, beating Georgia at home and Vandy in Nashville. Washington even set a school record with 17 assists against Georgia. But Wheeler-less, the Cats were not the same team. Not quite.

Against the Vols, Wheeler scored 21 points, second only to Washington’s 28. He also dished a game-high eight assists, compared to three turnovers in 28 minutes. Moreover, he pushed the pace at both ends of the floor, helping force Tennessee into 20 turnovers on the defensive end before setting the table in the frontcourt.

Kentucky’s Kellan Grady, left, secured the ball after Tennessee’s Justin Powell lost it during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. Grady scored 16 points in the Cats’ victory.
Kentucky’s Kellan Grady, left, secured the ball after Tennessee’s Justin Powell lost it during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. Grady scored 16 points in the Cats’ victory.

“At the end of the day, it’s about making shots,” Washington said.

Math says this is Calipari’s best shooting team at Kentucky. After Saturday, the Cats are now shooting 50.5 percent as a team, besting the 48.8 percent his 2011-12 NCAA championship team shot from the floor. Plus, Kentucky is shooting 36.1 percent from three-point range, its best three-ball mark since the 2015-16 team shot 36.6 percent.

Even better, this Kentucky team is fun to watch. It’s both skilled and unselfish. Certainly experience plays into that. Wheeler, Grady, Tshiebwe and Keion Brooks are all veterans of the college wars. And Washington is as smooth and consistent a freshman as we’ve seen in a while, even at Kentucky.

“I’m more concerned with how we play,” Calipari said Saturday. “Our history is that our teams play better at the end of the year. That’s the history. So, is this team getting better? Are individual players getting better? That’s my focus.”

And the focus is on playing fast.

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