No. 20 Kentucky’s fouling issues linger in loss to Tennessee

Kentucky has hit its lowest point of the season.

In its game at Tennessee on Tuesday night, the No. 20 Wildcats squandered a 21-point first half lead and fell to the Volunteers by a final score of 84-77. Kevin Punter led the way for Tennessee, scoring 27 points on the road to Rick Barnes’ biggest victory in his first year at his new university.

For the Wildcats, Tyler Ulis had his typical 20 points and five assists, and Jamal Murray chipped in with a solid 21 points, five rebounds and five assists. The downfall for John Calipari’s group came with many of the same issues that have plagued it this season. The defense really struggled to deal with Tennessee’s five-out, spacing-oriented offense. The big men also struggled to establish any sort of presence in the second half against one of the smallest teams in the country. However, there is one critical issue that continues to cause the Wildcats grief that will need to be ironed out if they want to make a run in March.

Kentucky has significant problems with free throws and fouling on both ends of the floor. It’s something that not only has been a problem in their two most recent games, but really all season.

Here are the numbers that show this one goes beyond issues with fouls being called on the road, or by particular refs.

  • Kentucky has lost the free-throw battle in each of its past six games, and in eight of its previous 10 games. It also lost the free-throw battle in all six of its losses this season.
  • That’s not merely an issue of singular games being a problem, either. In SEC play, the Wildcats are 13th in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt offensively, and 11th defensively. So basically, they’re in the bottom third of the league in both drawing fouls for free throws and in committing them. That’s pretty abnormal given their 6-3 mark, given that winning teams tend to get foul shots late when the opposition is trying to extend the game.
  • For the full season, Kentucky is committing fouls on 29.2 percent of their possessions, according to TeamRankings.com. That’s second-highest in the SEC behind Georgia, and 276th overall nationally.
  • No player on Kentucky is drawing at least five fouls per-40 minutes. Tyler Ulis is closest at 4.9, which places him in the 23rd percentile nationally. Given his usage rate, that’s a solid if unspectacular mark. On the other end of the spectrum, three of Kentucky’s four big men average at least 5.6 fouls per-40 minutes. Out of players who have played at least 300 minutes this season (or right around 14 minutes per game), that’s the most of any team in the SEC.

Basically, what all of this points to is that Kentucky struggles to play defense without fouling, and struggles to draw fouls to create easy opportunities for points on offense. It also points to the fact that this has been a season-long issue, which leads one to believe that this isn’t necessarily a matter of consistently getting the short end of the stick from the refs. Oh, and it’s something that doesn’t seem to be getting better.

Alex Poythress even said as much after the Kansas game when discussing how problematic fouling has been to their team.

“We’ve just gotta learn to play without fouling,” Poythress said. “It’s something we’ve been struggling with all year. We just have to learn to keep our hands up and we can’t look for excuses or anything.”

John Calipari and Kentucky have a fouling problem. (USATSI)
John Calipari and Kentucky have a fouling problem. (USATSI)

For his part, Calipari declined to comment on his team’s foul issues following the Tennessee game. But it’s undeniable that fouls and free throw shooting helped Tennessee get back in the game. In the final five minutes of the first half, Tennessee shot 13 free throws and made all of them, helping them trim that aforementioned 21-point deficit down to six. In the end, Tennessee outshot Kentucky 34-23 at the foul line.

The fouling issue affects Kentucky in multiple ways. First, and most obviously, is the way it affects the scoreboard. Giving away foul shots is a major problem because it leads to teams getting easy points. In the NCAA this season, teams are shooting right around 70 percent from the foul line. Allowing the other team to go to the foul line consistently is like allowing another team to put up 1.4 points-per-possession on two-shot fouls. Sometimes, fouling is a smart strategy in order to not give away an easy bucket. But over the long haul, it’s not effective and it’s why teams that draw fouls more fouls than their opponent tend to be more effective.

The second way it affects the team is both easily discerned and not so easily picked up on. Foul trouble for individual players can lead to fouling out, which is a clear negative result. But it can also lead to a difference in the way players play, which is arguably just as harmful. Poythress is the perfect example of this.

Against Tennessee’s small frontline, Poythress scored 12 points in the first 13 minutes. He was aggressive, and dominating in a game that matched up perfectly to his set of skills. At the 5:32 mark of the first half, Poythress picked up his second foul. He was subbed out for the rest of the first half, then also sat in the second half. This completely took him out of the rhythm that he had established early. In that second stanza, Poythress shot 1-for-3 from the field and turned the ball over three times in eight minutes before fouling out.

It’s easy to tell a team to stop fouling and much harder to come up with a solution. Maybe they shouldn’t chase offensive rebounds as often, as that’s been a source of cheap foul calls for them 94 feet away from the opponent’s basket this season. However, offensive rebounding has been something that Calipari’s teams have done well over the long haul. Maybe it’s a schematic defensive switch that sees them create fewer precarious fouling positions for their bigs.

In the end though, it’s likely going to come down the players simply adjusting the way they play. Going straight up for rebounds. Staying within their window of verticality when defending the rim. Being more vigilant about not bumping cutters in an easily identifiable way.

If the Wildcats don’t correct this issue, they’re setting themselves up for failure later in the season when the NCAA Tournament comes around. One final stat for you that shows how harmful fouling can be. In Kentucky’s six losses, they’ve lost the free throw battle by 11 attempts per game. In their 16 wins, they’ve won it by four per game.

Calipari has constantly talked about “winning plays” and how his team needs to make more of them this season. If those numbers don’t show that fouls aren’t “winning plays,” I don’t know what does.

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