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‘An identity for this team.’ UK basketball No. 1 in nation in key ball-handling metric.

The marquee ACC/SEC Challenge matchup between No. 8 Miami (Fla.) and No. 12 Kentucky at Rupp Arena was one of the most interesting stylistic matchups of the young college basketball season.

Both the Hurricanes and Wildcats entered Tuesday night’s game averaging 15.2 seconds or less per offensive possession. Both Miami and UK came into the contest shooting at least 42.5% from 3-point range. Jim Larranaga and John Calipari’s squads also both featured undersized post players — 6-foot-7 Norchad Omier for Miami and 6-foot-9 Tre Mitchell for UK — excelling in distinct frontcourt roles.

But for all the trends this top-15 matchup boasted, the most critical one to the current and future success of the Wildcats centered around UK’s ball movement.

The Cats came into Tuesday’s game as one of the most ball secure teams in the country.

And the Cats emerged from the contest even better in that regard.

Kentucky’s 22-point blowout win over Miami saw the Cats record 26 assists against only eight turnovers, continuing an early-season theme of responsible ball movement (UK also only had eight turnovers against Kansas in the Champions Classic).

Through seven games this season, Kentucky (6-1) has 146 assists against only 57 turnovers, good for an assist-to-turnover ratio of +2.56.

This is the best mark in the NCAA by a full 0.1 over UMass, which has played only four games.

In six of Kentucky’s seven games, the Wildcats have committed single-digit turnovers: The only outlier was a 14-turnover outing in a 34-point win over Stonehill College.

“People are not holding the ball, they are getting rid of it. So it is good stuff,” Calipari said after the Miami win.

Before facing the Hurricanes, UK assistant coach Chuck Martin pointed back to the Wildcats’ successful summer trip to Canada — and specifically the evolution of Mitchell as a decision-maker and distributor — as a big reason for Kentucky’s assist-to-turnover success.

“I think Coach Cal did a great job in Toronto implementing our offense, really trying to create an identity for this team,” Martin said. “He’s been able to put guys in places where they can succeed: Tre, I thought, was the biggest example of that.”

During UK’s four-game romp in the offseason GLOBL JAM event, Mitchell had 18 assists against just eight turnovers as he carved up zone defenses.

“The pressure for Rob (Dillingham) and Reed (Sheppard) and D.J. (Wagner) and Justin (Edwards) to make the decisions on a day-to-day basis, it took some pressure off those guys because now you’ve got a veteran guy who can make those decisions for them,” Martin added.

Mitchell continues to be a key offensive hub for the Wildcats: His 28 assists against six turnovers this season are a significant improvement from his previous college stops at UMass, Texas and West Virginia.

Tuesday was the latest example: Mitchell’s seven assists against the Hurricanes were a career best.

But to Martin’s point, UK’s younger players have also thrived when distributing the ball.

Dillingham’s nine assists against Miami (which came with no turnovers) were also a career high, and he leads UK with 40 total assists.

“When you have players that can dribble, pass and shoot ... you play this way and you won’t turn it over that much,” Calipari said Tuesday when asked by the Herald-Leader about UK’s superb ball security.

That oft-cited Calipari terminology of “players that can dribble, pass and shoot” even crept into some of the postgame answers for Sheppard, who has 21 assists and six turnovers over the last four games.

Calipari’s extended answer to the Herald-Leader’s question dealt with a common critique: Why haven’t past Kentucky teams played with the same up-tempo, free-flowing offensive style that breeds assists?

A laundry list of names from Kentucky basketball’s recent past — think Nick Richards and Oscar Tshiebwe — were cited by Calipari to explain something simple: Playing style is dictated, primarily, by players.

“Every team I’ve coached I’ve had to coach different. If I tried to play this way last year ... I couldn’t have played this way, who we had,” Calipari said. “... You can’t play this way if the guys are not good with the ball and confident 3-point shooters.”

UK’s 3-point offense against Miami (9-for-21, 42.9%) was a slight increase from the already-scintillating 42.53% clip the Cats entered the game shooting from distance. And that was already a top-four mark nationally.

The fact of the matter is that when Kentucky shares the ball this well, and makes shots this consistently, not many teams in the country can keep up.

That’s what felled Miami on Tuesday.

“I think that’s what’s impressive about Kentucky’s offense is how well they share the ball,” Larranaga, the Hurricanes coach, said.

“They had 26 assists. We had eight. That’s not a good stat for us.”

Kentucky guard Rob Dillingham dives for a steal against Miami during Tuesday’s ACC/SEC Challenge game at Rupp Arena. Dillingham finished the victory with a career-high nine assists and zero turnovers.
Kentucky guard Rob Dillingham dives for a steal against Miami during Tuesday’s ACC/SEC Challenge game at Rupp Arena. Dillingham finished the victory with a career-high nine assists and zero turnovers.

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