Throughout the preseason and amid some early struggles, John Calipari repeatedly uttered the same declaration about his latest group of Wildcats.
“This should be the best three-point shooting team I’ve had here,” he said before UK played Monmouth on Nov. 28, a variation of the same idea he’s been pushing for the past few months.
These Cats sure didn’t look the part early in the season.
Through its first six games, Kentucky made just 30 of 91 three-point attempts, a 33.0-percent clip and far below the expectations of both Calipari and his players. “This should be my best shooting team. I just don’t get it,” Calipari lamented to the SEC Network after the Winthrop game, the Cats’ fifth of the season.
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Earning the distinction of Calipari’s “best shooting” team at Kentucky will be tough — he had a particularly good one early in his Wildcats’ tenure — but this UK squad is starting to look like the collective deep threat that its coach envisioned in the preseason.
Heading into conference play at Alabama on Saturday, the Cats are shooting 36.0 percent from three-point range, ranking sixth of Calipari’s 10 teams at Kentucky at the same point in those previous seasons. Not great, but there’s more reason for optimism deeper in the numbers.
Five of Calipari’s previous nine teams at Kentucky have improved their three-point shooting percentage from the non-conference portion of the schedule to the end of the season, and this bunch of Cats appears to be trending into that group.
After shooting 33.0 percent through its first six games of the season, UK is 47-for-123 (38.2 percent) in the six games since. The Cats have shown not just an ability to make shots at a higher rate in the span, but a willingness to actually take more shots from beyond the arc.
In the first half of the non-conference schedule, UK attempted 91 total threes and never took 20 in a single game. Over the second half of the non-conference schedule, the Cats have taken 123 three-pointers, attempting more than 20 in five of those six games.
The start of that latter stretch — Game 7 against Monmouth — saw the Cats make 10 of 24 three-pointers, the first time they’d hit more than seven in a game and the first time they’d taken more than 18. Afterward, Calipari talked about how he had been “tweaking the offense” and that his Cats “needed a game like this.” He also, correctly, pointed out the breadth of shot makers this team possesses. “I’m telling you, it’s the best three-point shooting team I’ve had,” he declared again.
For just the second time in his UK tenure, Calipari had six players make five or more three-pointers in the non-conference portion of the schedule. (The other team to do it was the national title squad in 2011-12). Only three of Calipari’s previous UK teams made more threes per game in the non-conference schedule than this team’s mark of 6.4, and that number has been trending up for these Cats, with their most-prolific shooter leading the way.
Freshman guard Tyler Herro currently leads the team with 21 made three-pointers. He’s shooting just 32.8 percent from long range this season, but that number is also trending in the right direction. Herro is 18-for-51 from deep (35.3 percent) in his last eight games after going just 3-for-13 to start the season. In those most recent eight games, he’s made at least two three-pointers in all but one — an 0-for-6 performance against Seton Hall — and he’s 7-for-14 from three-point range in his last two games, victories over North Carolina and Louisville.
This is the Herro that Calipari and UK fans expected to see earlier in the year — he was billed as one of the best shooters in high school basketball last season — and the 18-year-old guard has talked in recent weeks about growing more comfortable with the college game.
The former UK star he’s often compared to — Rex Chapman — told the Herald-Leader after the Seton Hall game that Herro would find his way. “Honestly, I’m not worried about Tyler,” Chapman said then. “Tyler is one of the best shooters I’ve seen come through here in a dozen years.”
Fellow freshman Keldon Johnson has exceeded expectations early in his college career, shooting 19-for-44 from long range, a 43.2 percent clip, which makes him just the fourth freshman in the Calipari era to make more than 15 threes and shoot at a higher rate than 40 percent in the non-conference portion of the schedule. The others were Devin Booker, Doron Lamb and Eric Bledsoe.
Herro and Johnson both join the group of Calipari freshmen that have made more than 15 threes in non-conference play, and five of the last six players in that group — Kevin Knox, Malik Monk, Jamal Murray, James Young and Aaron Harrison — have all improved their three-point percentage between the end of non-conference play and the end of the season. The only one who didn’t was Booker, who shot a ridiculous 46.0 percent in non-conference play and ended up at 41.1 percent.
Quade Green is still UK’s next-most-prolific shooter this season with 11 made threes (even though he left the program nine games into the season), but the Cats have other threats all over the floor.
A pair of big men — PJ Washington (9-for-20; 45.0 percent) and Reid Travis (5-for-13; 38.5 percent) — have proven their worth from long range.
Jemarl Baker — another celebrated high school shooter — has gone 3-for-9 from deep in the last three games after missing all of last season and part of this one with a knee injury, and he looks like another deep threat for the Cats as this season progresses and he gets back in playing rhythm.
And the Cats have done much of their three-point damage without much of a contribution from freshman point guard Immanuel Quickley, who won the McDonald’s All-American three-point contest in the spring and came to UK with the reputation of a much-improved outside shooter. Quickley is 8-for-27 from three-point range (29.6 percent), a rate that should improve as the season progresses amid Calipari’s calls for him to be a more assertive player — and make more shots — going forward.
Kentucky’s other freshman point guard, Ashton Hagans, isn’t much of a three-point threat (he’s 1-for-8 this season) but his improved play offensively has helped open up the floor for teammates.
UK’s current three-point percentage (36.0) would rank fourth among Calipari’s teams’ final numbers, behind the 2015-16 team (36.6 percent), the 2011-12 team (37.8 percent) and the 2010-11 team (39.7 percent). These Cats’ rate of improvement suggests they could easily pass the first two teams on that list by the end of the season. The 2010-11 group — led by freshman shot makers Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb — was a special bunch.
That team made 281 threes — more than any other UK squad in the past 20 years — and tied the 1995-96 title team for highest three-point percentage (39.7) in program history. The 2010-11 team also had five players — Knight, Lamb, Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Terrence Jones — that made more than 25 three-pointers during the season.
Surpassing that group for the title of “best shooting” team in the Calipari era will be a tough task for this season’s Wildcats, but — if this group continues to improve at its recent rate — they could be in the conversation by the end of the season.
“I said from day one, ‘This should be my best three-point shooting team that I’ve had since I’ve coached here.’ And it’s becoming that now,” Calipari said Thursday. “But, early in the year, we weren’t willing passers, which made shots tough. We weren’t strong getting shots off — most of them were contested. We didn’t have great spacing when we posted the ball. … So we worked really hard on those areas to make sure that that happened.”