Just when you think 2020 can’t get any worse, this past Tuesday, August 11th, the University of Kentucky basketball program lost one if its most important pieces for the upcoming season. No, it wasn’t a 5-star recruit, diaper-dandy freshman, or returning upperclassman (what are those?), it was Assistant Coach Kenny Payne.  KP, as he is affectionately called by his players, made the decision this week to head to the bright lights of New York City and take a role as an Assistant Coach in the NBA for the New York Knicks.

This left John Calipari with a huge hole in his coaching staff.  Coach Payne seems kind of irreplaceable.  While most assistant coaches specialize in a particular area, Kenny Payne did it all. He was an excellent recruiter, both high school kids and parents loved him.  He was great in practice, where he specialized in working with post players.  He excelled at being the “good cop.”  Whenever a player got frustrated or down on themselves after being berated by Coach Cal, KP was always there to step in and smooth things over and tell them they would get through it. Every coaching staff needs one of those guys. 

What Kenny Payne is most known for however, is his ability to develop UK’s big men.  In the world of UK Basketball, most players are only on campus for about 7 months before bolting for the NBA.  That doesn’t leave a lot of time for coaches to even teach them their system, let alone work on their individual skills to improve.  While we have seen Kentucky’s big men struggle at the beginning of the season all too often the past 11 years, they seem to always have it together by March.  And everyone around the program gives a large portion of the credit to Kenny Payne for that.

But is this really the case?  Do UK’s big men really improve, at least from a statistical standpoint, from the beginning of the season to the end?  I decided to analyze a big man from every UK team during the Kenny Payne era. I looked at their game-by-game statistics for points and rebounds for the entire season. Then I divided the season in half: Non-Conference Games and Conference Games (this also includes SEC and NCAA tournament games).  I calculated each player’s average points per game and rebounds per game for the non-conference, then did the same for in-conference games to see how much improvement there was.  Yes, I realize that the second half of the season is typically more difficult, which might result in statistics decreasing due to better competition.  I do acknowledge this, but players usually have fewer minutes in non-conference games that are blowouts so I feel that this evens out.  Finally, there should be marked improvement for players after Christmas break, when they’ve had no classes and extended time to work with the coaching staff.

Without further ado, here are the results of my study and my analysis to determine if there was improvement from each player.  

2009-2010 Big Man:  Demarcus Cousins

-Non-Conference PPG: 15.4; In-Conference PPG: 14.9; DIFFERENCE -3.2%

-Non-Conference RPG: 9.6; In-Conference RPG: 10.0; DIFFERENCE +4.0%

-Improvement:  YES. 

Still one of the most beloved players of all-time, Boogie no doubt improved tremendously and was perhaps the most dominant player in college basketball by the end of the year. He was simply unstoppable in the paint.

2010-2011 Big Man:  Josh Harrelson


-Non-Conference PPG: 7.1; In-Conference PPG: 7.8; DIFFERENCE +10%

-Non-Conference RPG: 9.4; In-Conference RPG: 8.2; DIFFERENCE -12%

-Improvement:  YES.

Even though his rebounding took a dip in conference play and the post-season, the offensive improvement from Jorts was undeniable. And let’s be honest. Is there any chance he pulls off a play like this before working out with Kenny Payne?

2011-2012 Big Man:  Anthony Davis


-Non-Conference PPG: 12.7; In-Conference PPG: 15.0; Difference: +18%

-Non-Conference RPG: 10.6; In-Conference RPG: 10.2; Difference -4%

-Improvement:  YES.

It seemed like Anthony Davis literally got better EVERY GAME at UK. So it seems like a no-brainer to say he was on a completely different level at the end of the season.  And he was able to increase his scoring when he only took the 5th most shots on the team (I wonder if Calipari knows this?)

2012-2013 Big Man:  Nerlens Noel


-Non-Conference PPG: 10.3; In-Conference PPG: 10.9; DIFFERENCE: +6%

-Non-Conference RPG: 9.3; In-Conference RPG: 10.0; DIFFERENCE: +8%

-Improvement:  YES.

It was definitely a shame that we didn’t get to see Nerlens finish out the season. He was so fun to watch, and might have actually broken Anthony Davis’s record for blocks in a season (he was on pace to do it). Yet another guy who the improvement was easy to see from the start of the year.

2013-2014 Big Man: Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein


-Non-Conference PPG: 10.0; In-Conference PPG: 8.3; DIFFERENCE: -17%

-Non-Conference RPG: 6.6; In-Conference RPG: 6.3: DIFFERENCE: -4%

-Improvement:  NO*.

-I put the asterisk next to this one, because while his numbers may have dipped in this particular season, Willie ended up being one of the most improved players in the history of the program. Who would have ever thought he would end up being a 1st Team All-American the year after this?  And he is still wanted for murder in Florida after he did this:

2014-2015 Big Man:  Karl-Anthony Towns


-Non-Conference PPG: 8.2; In-Conference PPG: 11.3; DIFFERENCE: +38%

-Non-Conference RPG: 6.7; In-Conference RPG: 6.7; DIFFERENCE: 0

-Improvement:  YES.

I mean just look at those scoring numbers. Up THIRTY-EIGHT percent the second half of the season. KAT became the go-to guy on a team full of superstars. Once he got the ball down low, it was an automatic bucket.  Now if only we had gotten him the ball at the end of that game in 2015 against the team in the red uniforms.

2015-2016 Big Man:  Skal Labissiere


-Non-Conference PPG: 9.1; In-Conference PPG: 5.3; DIFFERENCE: -42%

-Non-Conference RPG: 3.5; In-Conference RPG: 2.9; DIFFERENCE: -17%

-Improvement:  NO.

Did I really need to run the numbers on this one?  Perhaps the biggest bust of the Calipari era. Or any era.  Once considered the best recruit in the country, things just never clicked for Skal and we saw his confidence shrink with each passing game.  I can’t think of many players who frustrated me more.

2016-2017 Big Man:  Bam Adebayo


-Non-Conference PPG: 12.5; In-Conference PPG: 13.2; DIFFERENCE: +6%

-Non-Conference RPG: 8.0; In-Conference RPG: 8.0; DIFFERENCE: 0

-Improvement:  YES.

After a season in which we saw no physicality from our post men (Skal and Marcus Lee), Coach Cal brought in a guy named Bam. Because with a name like that, you better not let anybody push you around. And nobody did.  You could always count on Bam to consistently get rebounds, but it was his offensive game that continued to improve throughout the year. While mainly relying on dunks and put-backs earlier in the season, by March Bam was able to create his own offense and became a reliable option on both sides of the floor.

2017-2018 Big Man:  Freshman PJ Washington


-Non-Conference PPG: 10.2; In-Conference PPG: 11.1:  DIFFERENCE: +9%

-Non-Conference RPG: 5.5; In-Conference RPG: 5.8: DIFFERENCE: +5%

-Improvement: YES.

The second half of PJ’s freshman season really set the stage for the monster sophomore season he would have.  And all of those numbers improved while he played with a broken pinkie!  Imagine what he could have done with 10 functioning fingers. Maybe he could have made some of those free-throws against Kansas State? Not that I’m still upset about that.

2018-2019 Big Man:  Sophomore Nick Richards


-Non-Conference PPG: 3.2; In-Conference PPG: 4.3; DIFFERENCE: +34%

-Non-Conference RPG: 3.7; In-Conference RPG: 3.1; DIFFERENCE: -16%

-Improvement:  YES.

Yes, Sophomore Nick Richards could be frustrating to watch, and he found himself out of the starting lineup most of the year behind PJ Washington and Reid Travis.  But we began to see glimpses of what he was capable of the second half of the season, which led to the emergence of…..

2019-2020 Big Man:  JUNIOR Nick Richards


-Non-Conference PPG: 12.0; In-Conference PPG: 15.3; DIFFERENCE: +27%

-Non-Conference RPG: 7.1; In-Conference RPG: 8.2; DIFFERENCE: +15%

-Improvement:  YES.

Who ever saw this coming? Junior Nick Richards became the most reliable player on the team, was a rebounding machine, and one of the best rim protectors we’ve ever had wear the blue and white.  I can’t imagine what Senior Nick Richards could have done. I imagine he would have become the greatest player in the history of college basketball.

Now let’s summarize. 11 seasons. 11 players. 9 showed improvement during the particular season analyzed.  That’s a success rate of almost 82%.  And keep in mind, most coaches have 3 or 4 seasons to work with players, Kenny Payne gets 1 (2 if he’s lucky).  So is Kentucky going to miss Kenny Payne?  You’re damn right they are.