NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Kentucky

No. 16 Kentucky is finding ways to win this season despite Hall of Fame coach John Calipari consistently finding ways to tie one hand behind his team's own back.

Take Tuesday's 91-89 win vs. Mississippi State for example. Kentucky (20-8, 10-5 SEC) had a lineup of Justin Edwards, Adou Thiero, Antonio Reeves, D.J. Wagner and Ugonna Onyenso to start the game vs. the Bulldogs. That lineup played sparingly together but was unequivocally a disaster. UK was outscored 17-6 using that five-man rotation and only used it 4.5 minutes in total, per Pivot Analysis data. Calipari wasn't stubborn enough to play it together long, but he should know by now that lineup is a losing proposition:'s lineup data among UK rotations to play at least 40 possessions together rates the starting lineup Kentucky trotted out as the second-least efficient lineup this season in adjusted team efficiency margin. 

Not good. Worse and more perplexing from that starting lineup is not who is in, but rather who is out. Notably, star freshmen Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham were not -- and have not -- been on the first unit to start games. Calipari waited until the 17:20 mark to sub the two in. 

And over the last few months, that has been a theme. 

By the time the two were activated, things were already going haywire on Tuesday. Kentucky trailed 7-3 when Sheppard and Dillingham finally saw their first action before eventually going on to win on a last-second shot from Sheppard down the lane. (Sheppard had a career-high 32 points including the game-winner; Dillingham played the fewest minutes in a game in three months and finished with nine points.)

This -- Calipari bringing his two best NBA prospects off the bench -- is not a new development this season of course, to say nothing of his long track record previously. Sheppard has started just five games (mostly due to other injuries) and Dillingham has started one (which came early in the season), and it is frequently the subject of scrutiny for Big Blue fans. Rightfully so. 

But this -- the scene in which Dillingham and Sheppard are consistently being tossed into a raging inferno and asked to play firefighter -- is also not new. It'd be one thing if Kentucky was cruising with a platoon with Dillingham and Sheppard coming off the pine the way things worked in 2014-15 when UK went 38-1. That's not the case. Instead, Kentucky is 20-8 on the season, a projected No. 5 seed, and in constant need of its two freshmen to bring shovels to help dig the Cats out of holes.

  • Against LSU on Feb. 21, Sheppard and Dillingham didn't see their first action until the 13:13 mark of the game. Kentucky lost 75-74.
  • Against Gonzaga on Feb. 10, a game Sheppard started only due to injury, Kentucky trailed 7-4 when Dillingham was finally inserted into the game at the 17:38 mark. Kentucky lost 89-85.
  • And against Tennessee on Feb. 3, a game Sheppard again started due to D.J. Wagner's injury, Kentucky trailed 16-5 before Dillingham was thrust into the game at the 15:28 mark. Kentucky lost 103-92.

Lineup data from Pivot Analysis further backs up the bewildering decision from Calipari to not start his two best players while spreading minutes around. While Sheppard and Dillingham play the third and fifth-most minutes on a per-game basis, there's a strong argument that the duo should be 1 and 2 in total minutes in a landslide. When Sheppard is on the floor, Kentucky's scoring margin is 130.49 to 104.9 in favor of the Wildcats on a per-100 possession basis, vs. 112.92 to 124.79 when he is off the floor in favor of the opponent on a per-100 possession basis. Kentucky is still winning with Dillingham off the floor but is similarly throttling teams when he is on the floor, outpacing teams 127.99 to 109.87 in minutes he plays.

Minutes won (per 100 possessions) 

Kentucky Opponents
With Reed Sheppard on the court 130.49104.9
With Sheppard not on the court112.92 124.79

Kentucky Opponents
With Rob Dillingham on the court 127.99109.87
With Dillingham not on the court 121.96111.48

Source: Pivot Analysis

That stacks up as good as any option for Kentucky. Among players averaging more than 15 minutes per game, Sheppard and Dillingham rate first and third, respectively, in scoring margin while on the floor at +25.58 and +18.11. Those ranks are jarring while they are off the floor, too; Kentucky is a stunning -11.38 per 100 possessions in minutes Sheppard sits and 10.48 when Dillingham does. That ranks as the first and third marks on the team, again respectively, as well. 

It's not just on/off efficiency that suggests Sheppard and Dillingham are worthy of starting and finishing games. Among players averaging 15 or more minutes per game, Sheppard and Dillingham are first and second on the team in Player Efficiency Rating, first and third in Box Plus/Minus, second and third in Offensive Win Shares, and first and fourth in Defensive Win Shares.

More goodness from EvanMiya's lineup data backs the claim that Dillingham and Sheppard are not just singularly productive stat-stuffers. They are productive when on the floor and Kentucky benefits when they are playing. The most effective five-man lineup for the Wildcats in adjusted team efficiency margin (among those who have played 15 or more possessions) includes the two on the floor. So does the third-most efficient. And the fourth-most efficient. And the fifth-most efficient. (The second-most efficient includes Sheppard but not Dillingham; the other four in that lineup are Bradshaw, Edwards, Reeves and Thiero.)

For a team billed as bordering on elite offensively and flirting with catastrophic defensively, it's impossible to know why two of the team's most impactful defenders aren't starting games or playing close to 35 minutes-plus every night. Having the two come off the bench much longer -- or during the NCAA Tournament -- could make Calipari look even more silly than when he brought Devin Booker off the bench and only used him 21.5 minutes per game in 2014-15. 

There is no easy solution to a complex situation like the one on Calipari's hands. Playing Dillingham and Sheppard together for 40 minutes every night isn't the magical recipe to success. But managing a roster while balancing egos and expectations is hard enough on its own while coaching under the bright lights at Kentucky. Not starting his two best players and playing them for as many minutes as their young legs can hold for every meaningful game moving forward is just an unnecessary obstacle that might be what stands between a good Kentucky team and a great one.