Rejections.  Stuffs.  Facials.  Swats.  Denials.  Whatever you want to call them, there is no understating the impact a huge blocked shot can have on the momentum of a basketball game.  In a sport that features some of the best athletes in the world, a blocked shot can show that one player is just more physically dominant in the paint than their opponent.  There is also the intimidation factor that is caused by an elite shot blocker.  We all remember in 2012 when opponents would drive to the goal, only to see Anthony Davis there and decide “Uh, never mind. I’ll dribble this one back out.”  As Kentucky basketball fans, we have been blessed to see some of college basketball’s most elite shot blockers: Davis, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Sam Bowie, and a host of others. 

After seeing the 2021-2022 edition of the Wildcats for a couple of games, there is a possibility that blocking shots will not be one of the strengths of this team.  But how important is it really?  One could argue that if you play elite man-to-man defense and don’t let your guy beat you, then you don’t really need to block a lot of shots.  On the other hand, some of the best teams in history have had at least one of these players:

Anthony Davis shattered UK’s single season block record with 186 in leading the Cats to the 2012 title; The 2015 team who went 38-1 featured TWO of the best shot blockers in school history:  Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns; Jamaal Magloire and Nazr Mohammed finished with top 10 seasons for blocked shots in 1997 and 1998, respectively, in taking the Cats to a runner-up and national title finish.

Our research team* at Lex, Buds, & Pick ‘n Roll decided to crunch the numbers on blocked shots for the Kentucky teams during the last 30 years to see how it correlates to team success in the NCAA Tournament.

*Me looking up each season’s blocked shots statistics and manually typing them into an Excel sheet.

For the purposes of this study, I have divided up every Kentucky team from the last 30 years into 3 shot blocking categories:  Elite, Average, and Below Average.  And then looked to see how teams in each category faired in the NCAA Tournament.

  • Elite Teams had 6 or more blocked shots per game.
  • Average Teams had between 4.5-5.9 blocked shots per game.
  • Below Average Teams had less than 4.5 blocked shots per game.

I know you are as eager as the men on a Maury Povich paternity test episode to see these results, so without further ado, here is what we found:

Elite Shot Blocking Teams (7):  1998, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015

If you are reading this article, odds are you are a Kentucky fan, and I don’t have to tell you the significance of some of these years.  Out of these top 7 teams in the past 30 years, five of them at least made the Elite 8; four made the Final Four; and we had 2 national champions.  These numbers imply that if a Kentucky team can average more than 6 blocked shots per game, it has an above average chance of making the Final Four (57% of these teams did) and a 28% chance of winning the national championship (1998 and 2012). That is pretty staggering. 

Of course, there are a couple of BIG outliers in this group that you probably noticed as well.  Two teams (2009 and 2013) didn’t even make the Big Dance and wound up in the NIT.  While we all know the story of Nerlens Noel’s injury in 2013 and how it derailed the rest of the season, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw that Billy Gillispie’s 2009 team is one of the best shot blocking teams of the modern era.  Apparently, Perry Stevenson and Patrick Patterson blocked a heck of a lot of shots that year.  Which makes sense if you think about it, because Michael Porter got beat by his man on virtually every possession, leaving Perry and Patrick to fend for themselves.

Average Shot Blocking Teams (18):  1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021

The overwhelming majority of teams fell into this group, and as you can imagine there were a wide range of outcomes.  We have NIT teams, National Champions, and everything in between.  Since there was no tournament in 2020 (thanks a lot, Covid), and we don’t know how that team would have finished, I’ll exclude them from this comparison.  Out of the remaining 17 teams:

  • 9 made the Elite 8 (52% of teams in this group)
  • 4 made the Final Four (23% of teams in this group)
  • 3 made the Championship Game (17% of teams in this group), with of course the 1996 team cutting down the nets (thanks a lot, Arizona and UConn)

Perhaps the most interesting thing I found in these numbers, were that the 2014 team who made one of the most magical runs in tournament history, averaged the same number of blocks per game (5.9) as the 2021 Cats, who were by most any metric the worst team in the history of Kentucky basketball.  But we are looking at trends, not outliers, and the numbers show Kentucky has an above average chance of making it to the Elite 8 if they are just mediocre at blocking shot

Below Average Shot Blocking Teams (5):  1992, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006

Not a single banner was raised into the hallowed rafters of Rupp Arena during any of these seasons.  In fact, two teams (2004 and 2006) failed to even make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, losing in the 2nd round.  But there is another interesting phenomenon here.  2 of the most beloved teams in Kentucky history find themselves at the bottom of these rankings:  the 1992 Unforgettable’ s who nearly pulled off one of the biggest surprises in tournament history were it not for the heroic, inspiring, trash performance by Christian Laettner.  That team only had one player above 6’8”, and that was reserve Aminu Timberlake, the infamous receiver of the accidental, purposeful foot stomp from Laettner.  That team relied on a lethal full court press, and knocking down 3 pointers from all over the floor to make up for the lack of size.

Other than true Center Randolph Morris, the other big man on Tubby Smith’s 2005 roster was 6’6” Chuck Hayes.  To compensate for its lack of size, this team turned into one of the best half court defenses that we have ever seen in Lexington, allowing only 62 points per game.  It also took a miraculous performance by Michigan State in double-overtime to knock this team out of the tournament.   The moral of the story here:  In order to make up for not having good shot blockers, Kentucky teams must find another area to excel in.  Whether that be on the offensive or defensive end, something has to be done to overcome a true presence under the rim. If they don’t, they are unlikely to do much in March:  60% of the teams in this group failed to make it past the Sweet 16. 

Implications for this year’s team

The verdict is still out on how good a shot-blocking team this group of Cats will be. We learned right away against Duke that they are probably not going to be swatting balls at an elite level, only managing 3 total blocks in that game. However, they responded with 10 blocks against Robert Morris.  So which game is more reflective of what this team will do over the course of a 31-game regular season?  The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. 

Oscar Tshiebwe and Damion Collins will block a lot of shots against smaller teams, but struggle to get many against teams with a lot of size like Duke.  In those games, it will put an extreme amount of pressure on Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington to constantly be able to contain their man and not get beat off the dribble.  It also makes it even more important for Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz, and Dontaie Allen to be able to shoot a high percentage from the 3-point line whenever they are in the game. All of these players have shown the ability to do their job at a high level, the question that remains to be seen is if they can consistently do it for a 31 game regular season stretch, and more importantly the 6 games that matter in March.