Kentucky is the favorite to win the National Championship as we head toward March, with a record of 27-1. The only loss was on a buzzer beater at Indiana. They have really only been tested in a handful of games, and just concluded a game at Mississippi State where they fell behind by 13 points at halftime, but came all the way back to win by 9.
Even if they are the best team, though, history would say that they have less than a 40% chance of winning the title in the single elimination NCAA tournament. They obviously could lose to anyone on a given night, though they would be heavily favored against most. So, what kind of teams would pose the greatest risk to Kentucky?
The Wildcats have the best defense at blocking and altering shots, and limiting opponents near the paint. Mainly thanks to Anthony Davis, with the help of an athletic and lengthy front line, Kentucky leads the nation in shot block percentage and in opponent’s 2-point percentage.
Judging by this year, the keys to beating Kentucky, or having a chance to beat Kentucky, are to hit three pointers and hope that they miss, playing them even up front on the boards, and not losing possessions through turnovers. It wouldn’t hurt to get Anthony Davis in foul trouble and limit his minutes, something that rarely happens. Indiana hit 9 of 15 from three point range including the game winner. Mississippi State was 9 of 20 from 3-point range, and that had them the lead until late. Kentucky struggled relatively in long range shooting at Indiana (2 for 7) as well as the Vanderbilt game that was tied late (3 for 14).
We can also look at teams most similar to Kentucky, with a lengthy front line, who show up as high tournament seeds (1 or 2 seeds) who ranked highly in defensive blocks and opponent 2-point field goal percentage. The ten most similar teams since 2003 pass the sniff test. It includes four Connecticut Huskies teams with Emeka Okafor, Josh Boone, or Hasheem Thabeet at center; three of John Calipari’s teams (2010 Kentucky and 2006 and 2009 Memphis, two other Memphis versions show up just outside the top 10); and three Kansas teams (2007, 2008, and 2010).
Two of those teams won the National Title, which means that 8 of them lost as a 1 or 2 seed, with 7 of them losing before the Final Four. Three of those would have qualified as big upsets–George Mason as a #11 seed, Northern Iowa as a #8 seed, and NC State as a #10 seed.
While most of those upsets involved the opponent out-shooting the shot blocking team, particularly from three-point range, it didn’t necessarily follow that those teams were considered proficient outside shooting teams entering the contest. In fact, none of the eight teams that pulled the upset were in the Top 50 in three point percentage, and only two were in the Top 100.
While each of the teams had different traits, there were some that tended to be more common between the teams that beat these shot blocking and lengthy front lines. The three main ones where most of our upset perpetrators tended to be good were 2-point FG% offense, limiting turnovers on offense, and keeping the opponent from getting offensive boards. Three point shooting on offense was in fact one of their weaker traits across the board. Why might keeping opponent off the boards be a good indicator? Well, you need Kentucky to be a little off. But when they are, you better not let their athletes beat you anyway with easy put backs. For this reason, I don’t have Syracuse as a matchup most likely to produce a win over Kentucky, even though they are neck and neck with the Wildcats.
Which teams might fit the profile of the teams that could beat Kentucky? I’ll list five total, picking three higher seeds, and two teams that could fit the profile of the next Northern Iowa or George Mason if they meet before the Elite 8.
1. MICHIGAN STATE. This is the quintessential Tom Izzo team, except moreso. Half the teams that knocked off our Kentucky comparables in slight upsets were coached by Izzo, Ben Howland at UCLA, and Bob Huggins. What do they have in common? Tough-minded defensive approach, front lines that can battle with the opponent, and a tendency to do well on the boards. Michigan State is 4th in the country in effective field goal defense, is ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates, and is a proficient team inside, but not a great outside shooting team. We know Izzo can coach in March. If there is one team Kentucky shouldn’t want showing up as the #2 in its bracket, it should be this one. [Projected Seed, #1 or #2]
2. NORTH CAROLINA. The Tar Heels lost to Kentucky by a point in Lexington already. They mirror Kentucky in that they have an athletic front line and length on the perimeter. The Tar Heels strengths are not turning the ball over, thanks to Kendall Marshall, and limiting opponents shots. (North Carolina ranks 5th in offensive rebounding per Pomeroy, and 40th in stopping opponent’s offensive boards). Kendall Marshall gives them a penetrator who can create opportunities for the front line and attack Davis. This would be a historical matchup for the ages, with two of college basketball’s top programs. [Projected Seed, #2 or #3]
3. KANSAS. Kansas lost to Kentucky very early in the year and seemed outmatched. They are playing much better lately, and have the front line to compete with the Wildcats. Kansas doesn’t have as much depth and will need Withey, Robinson and Taylor to stay out of foul trouble, but Taylor is big enough and athletic enough to match up with Kentucky’s perimeter players, while Robinson presents a challenge inside. [Projected Seed, #1 or #2]
4. WICHITA STATE. I’ve already highlighted the Shockers and they could be George Mason or Northern Iowa on steroids, putting up even better numbers in the regular season. It’s not only that they rate highly by efficiency measures, though, it’s also that they share plenty of traits with teams that pulled the upsets. They are a solid shooting team from outside, but not spectacular, while they rate very highly at getting 2-point looks. They don’t turn the ball over, and they are in the top 10 at limiting second chance opportunities. Unlike many mid-majors, they have a 7-footer in Garrett Stutz who can occupy Davis’ attention. [Projected Seed, #4, #5 or #6]
5. CALIFORNIA. California has a little guilt by association when it comes to the Pac-10 Conference and its horrible year, so it seems like they are being under seeded and may show up in a 8/9 matchup. I’m not saying they are great–I watched them get dismantled by a Missouri team that used quickness against them–but they do have the size on the perimeter to match up with Kentucky. The things they are good at show up as similar to teams like Northern Iowa and George Mason, so let’s call them the Big Conference version of the team that could spring a monumental upset if Kentucky is having a bad day. [Projected Seed, #7 through #10]
[photo via U.S. Presswire]