Like most fans, I was expecting Kentucky to beat South Carolina handily last night. I suppose Kentucky’s youth and questions about road performance are going concerns, but the Wildcats are roughly fives times more talented than the Gamecocks, so victory seemed like a pretty sure bet. Also like most fans, I was surprised to see Kentucky leading by only three points at the half. So I booted up my laptop, connected to something called the “Nunez network,” and caught the second half of what was an exhilarating game.
As you probably know by now, South Carolina ultimately pulled off the upset, ostensibly on the strength of a Herculean, 30-point performance by Gamecocks’ point guard Devan Downey. I know this is the reason why South Carolina won, because other than the occasional praise for Kentucky’s young talent, it was the only thing that commentators Jimmy Dykes and Brad Nessler talked about for an entire half of basketball. Ignoring the fact that the production team kept putting up graphics revealing Downey’s dismal field goal percentage (he finished 9-29, which my calculator tells me is 31%), Dykes and Nessler relentlessly praised Downey for his “great individual performance” and “his willingness to carry his team on his back.” In the waning moments of the game, Dykes said that “Downey is now in the discussion for National Player of the Year.” And while the fans were rushing the court, he offered his big finish:
“It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen as good an individual performance on the big stage as I did from Devan Downey tonight.”
I did and still do have some pretty heavy cognitive dissonance about Downey’s performance and its lofty praise. On one hand, it was clear from watching that South Carolina could barely be described as a basketball team for the two minutes that Downey wasn’t on the court. They were terrible without him. On the other hand, Downey’s 9-29 effort did contribute mightily to the team’s 34.4% shooting for the game. It’s hard to argue that shooting 31% on 29 shots is helping your team, no matter how incompetent your teammates might be. I still don’t know what to make of this conflict in analysis.
In an attempt to establish an opinion, I looked at South Carolina’s shooting with and without Downey. I was hoping to determine just how much Downey hurt his team with his shooting (if at all). For the season, the Gamecocks are shooting 42.7% from the field, 64.4% from the line, and 33.6% from three-point range. Their percentages shift to 42.9%, 57.1%, and 33% if Downey is removed from the season’s totals. So, other than free throw shooting, South Carolina basically loses nothing in the way of efficiency without Downey in the lineup.
But, obviously, it doesn’t work like that. As inefficient as he is, Downey does pose a significant threat to opposing defenses because of his ability and willingness to attack the paint and hoist threes. Even if he isn’t the greatest scorer, he’s willing to take the shots, and that requires sizable attention from defenses. So if Downey were to be out of the lineup, there’s no way his team would still shoot 43%ish, because now defenders can fully apply themselves to South Carolina’s array of relatively inept scorers. I’m guessing the Gamecocks’ field goal percentage would drop dramatically without Downey, perhaps even a full 10%. But no matter how much worse you think they would get, it’s enough that we can confidently say Downey helps the Gamecocks much more than he hurts them. South Carolina would not have won that game without Downey.
That does not, however, mean that Downey is an efficient scorer, or even a great player. He’s been a low-percentage shooter his entire collegiate career, an unfortunate fact that has been masked by his high scoring totals and overwhelming importance to his impotent team. He’s not a particularly gifted passer either; he has more turnovers than assists this season, which is especially damning for a point guard. He’s 51st in the country in offensive rating, and nowhere near the top one hundred in eFG%, TS%, Assist Rate, or Turnover Rate. He is simply not an efficient offensive player. And yet, he’s a huge boon to South Carolina and a decent-sized reason they beat Kentucky. Both statements can be true simultaneously.
Despite Dykes’ and Nessler’s best efforts to pass off an alluring narrative as incontrovertible fact (e.g. Downey carrying South Carolina to victory), the upset was largely due to non-Downey factors. Foremost among these was Patrick Patterson’s disappearing act for the Wildcats. Patterson contributed five points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes of play, which are simply unacceptable totals. Eric Bledsoe also scored only four points while accumulated five turnovers to offset his five assists. Even John Wall, the phenom himself, had a lackluster game. He did score 19 points, but they came on 6-16 shooting and with four turnovers. For whatever reason, the Wildcats simply had trouble scoring and holding onto the ball. Those factors are largely responsible for the outcome. Downey’s streak of improbable circus shots, while flashy and really fun to watch, were tertiary in their importance.
So, yes, Downey did carry the Gamecocks to victory. I’m sure they were fully capable of shooting 34.4% without Downey’s help, but he did hit a few important shots that his teammates probably wouldn’t even have gotten off. But two things were said during last night’s broadcast that are absolutely false. The first is that Downey is the major, overwhelming reason Kentucky lost. For reasons I just discussed, this is entirely wrong. The second is Dykes’ assertion that Downey is now a National Player of the Year candidate. This is offensively wrong and it hurts my eyes and entire moral code to see that clause typed on my blog. Not only is Downey not such a candidate, he’s not even close to such a candidate. He’s at least two tiers away from the most deserving candidates. If he stepped into a gym with Evan Turner, John Wall, James Anderson, Damion James, or Scottie Reynolds right now, I’d get angry, because he’s that much worse than they are. I hope I’m being clear enough about this.
Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee tonight in Knoxville. Go ‘Dores.