UK: Are 5 Starters One Too Many?

If you asked 100 UK fans who the best 5 players on the current roster are, the overwhelming majority would answer, in some order, “Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young.” Those 5 Wildcats are all considered eventual NBA players, and have started nearly every game together this season. They are the top 5 in minutes per game and points per game, and the lineup of the 5 of them together has played more than 4 times as much as any other lineup. There’s a question nobody’s asking, however: is that truly the most effective lineup for UK? Keep reading…you may be surprised by the answer.

Let’s start by looking at some statistics for UK lineups with all 5 starters, along with statistics for lineups with 4, 3, and less than 3:

5 Starters: Played 155 minutes

Scored 315 pts/allowed 270 pts, for a +/- of +45 points (+71 adjusting for opponents)

Shooting 48.7% eFG%, allowing 45.0%

19.2% TO Rate

+0.26 points per possession better than opponent (adjusted)


4 Starters: Played 254 minutes

Scored 556 pts/allowed 411 pts, for a +/- of +145 points (+182 adjusted)

Shooting 57.2% eFG%, allowing 43.2%

19.5% TO Rate

+0.44 points per possession better than opponent (adjusted)


3 Starters: Played 233 minutes

Scored 426 pts/allowed 354 pts, for a +/- of +72 points (+91 adjusted)

Shooting 48.5% eFG%, allowing 40.5%

15.7% TO Rate

+0.25 points per possession better than opponent (adjusted)


Less than 3 Starters: Played 82 minutes

Scored 141 pts/allowed 154 pts, for a +/- of -13 points (-4 adjusted)

Shooting 51.6% eFG%, allowing 48.8%

24.9% TO Rate

-0.03 points per possession worse than opponent (adjusted)

If you had to rank these groups blindly, you’d say the 2nd group was easily the best. However, if you just asked a UK fan if they thought UK is better with a bench player in place of 1 starter, there’s almost no chance they’d agree. The perception is that playing the most talented players will get the best results, but that’s far from the truth. The bottom line is that Kentucky outscores opponents by almost twice as much when they mix 4 starters in with a bench player…regardless of which bench player is in or which starter is out! In fact, of UK’s 10 most played lineups, the 5 starters have the 7th best +/- per possession…the top 6 are all 4 starters + a bench player (Poythress, Hawkins, or Lee).

In SEC play, it’s been even worse. The starters have actually been outscored when they’re on the court, as you can see here:

5 starters: -0.03 pts per possession (adjusted)

4 starters: +0.40 pts per possession (adjusted)

3 starters: +0.22 pts per possession (adjusted)

Less than 3: +0.32 pts per possession (adjusted)

So, in SEC play, the 5 starters have been even worse than they have over the full season. Improved play from lineups with less than 3 starters (especially from Jarrod Polson, Alex Poythress, and Dakari Johnson) have helped pick up the slack. It’s mostly been a problem starting halves; the starters are -15 in 21 minutes when starting halves, but +8 in the other 16 minutes they’ve played.

My suggestion would be to rotate in Alex Poythress for one of the usual starters to start each half. I’d suggest keeping Andrew Harrison in as PG and rotating out the other 4. These 4 lineup combinations are the 4 best in +/- per possession for Kentucky. In conference play, the gap between winning and losing can be really small; witness the Arkansas game…UK was +14 pts in 30 possessions with 4 starters in that game, and -16 in 48 possession with any other lineup. Playing your most effective lineups can make a huge difference, but it takes a lot of guts to look deep enough to figure out which lineups those actually are.

Free Throws: Shoot More, or Shoot Better?

The one skill in basketball that nearly every fan can practice under the same conditions as a player is free throw shooting. It’s one shot, from 15 feet away, without a defender. It seems so easy; just take your time, practice your form, and everyone should be able to hit 80%. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works during games. I’d wager that every fan has watched a game where their team seemed to lose because of poor free throw shooting.

Something that gets overlooked, however, is that every college basketball team shoots better from the free throw line than they do from the field. We can show this using a stat called Effective Field Goal Percentage; it’s calculated as (2 pt Field Goals Made + 1.5 x 3 point Field Goals Made)/ Total Field Goals Attempted.  This adjusts for the fact that most teams shoot worse on 3 pointers than on 2 pointers, but you get an extra point when you make them. A team’s Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFg%) accounts for how many points they get from field goal attempts; if you multiply it by 2, you get their points per shot attempt. If a team has an eFG% of 50% (about the NCAA average), they average 2 x 50%, or 1 point per shot attempt. If a team shoots 70% from the free throw line (about the NCAA average), they score 0.70 points per free throw. Since teams usually shoot free throws at a time, they average 1.4 pts per trip to the free throw line. No NCAA D-1 team in the 2013-14 season has an eFG% higher than their FT%; only 3 teams even have a FT% worse than the very best eFG%. For simplicity’s sake we’ll ignore turnovers and 1-and-1 free throws, and we can safely say that every single NCAA men’s basketball team generates more points when shooting free throw than when taking a field goal.

If you follow that logic, every team should try to draw more fouls (and therefore more free throws) so they can score more. Even if you’re a terrible free throw shooting team (say, 60%), that’s still going to generate more points than a field goal attempt. It’s even simpler to say that every team should try to shoot free throws better; after all, if you shoot 75% instead of 70% from the line, those are free points. Which should a coach emphasize, though?

Let’s imagine you’re the coach of an NCAA men’s basketball team, and your team shoots 70% from the free throw line (about the NCAA average) and shoots about 23 free throws per game (again, about the NCAA average). You think that, with some dedicated practice time, you could get your team halfway to being the best in the country at either shooting or drawing free throws. Since the best teams shoot about 79% from the line and about 34 free throw attempts, this means either becoming a 74.5% free throw shooting team or getting 28.5 attempts. You need to know which one will help your team score more points…so how does the math work out?

If your team shoots 23 free throws and hits 70%, you’re scoring 16.1 points per game from the line. Improving to 74.5% means you’ll score 17.1 points, an improvement of just over 1 point per game.

If you shoot 28.5 free throw attempts per game, however, you’ll score 20 points per game from the line, an improvement of 3.9 points per game.

But wait…those 5.5 extra free throw attempts come at a cost. You’re not getting to shoot field goals; instead, you’re drawing fouls and going to the line. 5.5 free throws equates to about 2.75 field goal attempts. If you’re an average team, you have an eFG% of 50%, and score about 1 point per field goal attempt. So, you gain 3.9 points on free throws, but give up 2.75 points on field goals; that’s a net gain of 1.15 points per game. So, you’d gain a little bit more by getting more attempts than by shooting a better percentage.

So, for an average team, shooting 5.5 more free throws per game would earn you a little more points per game than improving your free throw shooting by 5.5%. How does the relationship change if you think you can improve free throw shooting by more? Or if you don’t think you can draw that many free throws? Here’s a chart to show how it changes as you assume different FT% increases and increases in FT attempts:

Avg Chart


This chart show how your decision should change if you think your team can increase their FT% or FT attempts by varying amounts. For example, if you think your team can increase their shooting by 4% or take 4 more attempts per game, the decision should be going for a better %. The extra attempts won’t generate as many points as shooting better, when you account for giving up field goals. Conversely, if you think you can either shoot 4% better or get 6 more attempts, you should try to draw more attempts, because you’ll generate more points that way.

This chart is for an average team; it’s different for every team depending on their eFG%, current FT%, and FT attempts per game. A team like Kentucky that shoots a ton of free throws, at a low percentage,  already needs to focus on improving their percentage. They can take advantage of their strength more effectively, rather than doing something they do poorly (shoot FTs) more often. Here’s Kentucky’s chart:

UK Chart


Kentucky should only focus on drawing more FTs if they think they can’t improve their FT% by more than 2-3%, but they can draw 5 or more extra free throws. Kentucky shoots about 33 free throws per game at 67% currently.


Louisville doesn’t shoot as many free throws (about 26 per game), and shoot them a little worse than Kentucky, but they have a higher eFG%. This means that Louisville doesn’t gain as much by generating more free throws, but they also doesn’t gain as much from increasing their percentage since they shoot fewer attempts. It turns out their chart is identical to UK’s:

UL Chart


Louisville currently shoots 66% from the line on 26 attempts per game; they should try to improve their shooting unless they think they can only improve by 2-3% but could draw 5 or more extra attempts instead.

It’s not as simple as shooting a higher percentage from the line; teams can also improve just by getting to the line more often. Understanding the trade-offs and which is the better goal is a small part of understanding how a team can improve.

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