Sorry, Anthony Davis: The 2015 Kentucky Team Might Be Better Than the One From 2012
Recently, New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis said that his 2012 National Title Kentucky team would beat this year’s currently-undefeated Kentucky squad if they played one another.
Actually, he didn't say they'd just beat them.
“Oh, I mean, we’d destroy them. No question.”
It's actually a good question -- who would win if these teams matched up?
Let’s first look at the matchups, based on minutes.
PG –- Marquis Teague vs. Andrew Harrison
SG -– Doron Lamb vs. Aaron Harrison
SF -– Michael Kidd-Gilchrist vs. Devin Booker
PF -– Terrence Jones vs. Karl-Anthony Towns
C -– Anthony Davis vs. Willie Cauley-Stein
The 2012 squad has the advantage of larger names –- their players have already been in the pros for a couple years, so it’s hard to separate Anthony Davis, NBA superstar from Anthony Davis, college basketball superstar. They’re both very good, but Davis has obviously developed tremendously over the last three years.
There was a lot of talk in the preseason about the height of the 2015 Kentucky Squad –- the Harrison twins both stand at a crazy-tall-for-guards 6’6'', and their original small forward, Alex Poythress, was listed at 6’8''. Then you have the two big men who are at 6’11'' and 7’0''. They certainly have some size.
However, when Poythress went down, guard Devin Booker has been getting run as the “small forward” (or however you want to divide up their three-guard lineup). It hasn’t hurt them this year, as no team has really been able to take advantage. And it’s not like Booker is short -– he’s listed at 6’6'' as well –- but perhaps Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s long arms and extra inch would give him problems.
The big men matchups would be incredible. Davis going against Towns and Cauley-Stein would be must-watch television, and probably will be in the pros in a couple of years. Jones isn’t a slouch, either –- he was a very good forward alongside Davis, who could stretch out opposing defenses and was not scared of clutch moments.
Now let’s look at the numbers. Here are a couple tables with data from a variety of sources, mostly sports-reference.com, kenpom.com, and our own metric here at numberFire, nERD. You can find glossaries for each of these metrics here, here and here.
The 2012 squad was better on offense, but the 2015 team gets the nod defensively. On both ends, part of that both is the difference in pace the teams played at. The 2012 team averaged nearly four more possessions over 40 minutes than their 2015 counterparts. As a result, that would inflate the 2012 team’s offense and have the same effect on the 2015 defense.
However, it’s hard to just brush off what this year’s team is doing on the defensive end. They’re allowing a ridiculous 83.9 points per 100 possessions as a team and just 51.7 points per game on average. That’s not just the best this year, but it’s easily the best over the last 15 years. And I only say that because kenpom.com has data going back to 2002 -– it could definitely be the best of all time, I just can’t definitively make the claim.
If your argument is that the best player within these two teams would lead his team to a victory, then the man who started this all, Anthony Davis, would be your guy. Davis posted 0.314 win shares per 40, a 18.7 BPM and a 35.1 PER. This year’s best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, has a 0.294 WS/40, 16.4 BPM, and 28.3 PER. Davis would definitely be the best player on the floor.
The 2015 squad may not have the best player, but they have numbers 2-7, according to WS/48. Terrence Jones’ mark of 0.212 would be behind Towns, Cauley-Stein, Booker, Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles, and Aaron Harrison for the 2015 team. They don’t have Davis -– who potentially could be one of the five or 10 greatest players ever when his career ends --– but they have a crazy amount of depth.
It’s really hard to judge teams across seasons in college basketball. In the NBA or other professional sports, the best players will have double-digit season careers. As a result, things are pretty steady and we can compare teams from different seasons a little more fairly. In college hoops, however, the best players are only playing one season. We can judge the 2012 team against their competition and the 2015 team against their competition, but we don’t really have a great way to judge the 2012 competition against the 2015 competition.
Some metrics attempt to give an all-encompassing number that can be used across seasons. Our own metric, nERD, is one of them. Again, this stuff isn’t an easy science, but it’s really the best we have at the moment. And our metric says this year’s Kentucky squad is quite a bit better than the 2012 one. In fact, their 23.06 nERD would be just above the 2005 UNC title team and just behind nERD’s best modern team, the 2001 Duke squad. That’s pretty good company.
So who would win this hypothetical matchup? By the numbers I’d have to go with the 2015 team, but then again, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable betting against The Brow.