3 Reasons Why Kentucky Won't Win the NCAA Tournament
Kentucky is really good. We already know that. In fact, based on our in-house nERD metric, we've posited that they may be historically good . They are the best defensive team in the country by far, with two huge defensive game-changers in Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein.
So, why am I going contrarian and saying that Kentucky won't win it all? There are specific reasons based on math and statistics, not emotion why I think Kentucky won't be cutting the nets down. Let's dive in.
1. The Offensive Potential of Remaining Opponents
Looking at Kentucky's 36-0 schedule and taking inventory on kenpom.com , the Wildcats haven't played many teams this season that stand out offensively. In fact, of the Wildcats' 2014-15 opponents, only the North Carolina Tar Heels (13th) and Vanderbilt (20th) ranked in the Top 20 Adjusted Offensive Ratings.
While they've beaten all comers and defeated the three Sweet 16 teams they've played handily (North Carolina, UCLA, and Louisville), the road ahead for the Wildcats gets significantly tougher defensively. After likely disposing West Virginia in the Sweet 16 (who rank 38th in Adjusted Offensive Rating), the Wildcats' potential opponents are among the best offensive teams in the country.
This would include a potential Elite Eight matchup with Notre Dame (3rd) or Wichita State (18th), a Final Four matchup with Wisconsin (1st), Arizona (7th), North Carolina (13th), or Xavier (21st), and a National Championship game which could pit them against Duke (2nd), Gonzaga (4th), Michigan State (14th), or Utah (16th).
No offense to Cincinnati, but the Bearcats ranked 102nd nationally in Adjusted Offensive Rating and it showed in terms of shot selection and mistakes. A better equipped offensive team may have been able to stay in a game that was fairly close at the half, especially considering Kentucky was not shooting well.
In plain terms, Kentucky hasn't faced a strong offensive team in months and hasn't played the caliber of offensive opponent that the rest of the tournament field offers. What happens when they run into a team that is offensively talented who can get hot too?
2. Kentucky's Shooting Woes
Don't get me wrong, Kentucky is no slouch on offense. While they rank sixth overall in Adjusted Offensive Rating, shooting is a big challenge. In fact, the Wildcats are shooting worse in the NCAA Tournament than overall this season. They've hit 48-115 (41.7%) of their shots in two tournament games (7-25, 28% from deep) against an overall season 46.6% field goal percentage (ranked 44th) and 34.7% from three (ranked 161st).
Given these offensive woes, how did the Wildcats win games so handily in the first two rounds? The answer is superb defense and being aggressive in getting to the free-throw line. Kentucky has had duplicate 20 for 28 efforts (71.4%) from the line in the tournament and average 24.5 free-throw attempts per game on the season (fifth in total attempts), while shooting 72.2%.
While everyone has vivid memories of Aaron Harrison's game winners last season, both he and his brother Andrew have questionable shot selection. In fact, according to Grantland, in four close games this season, the Harrison twins shot a combined 27.6% on 94 attempts. Both shoot under 40% overall for the season, and Aaron shoots 31.1% on 5 three point attempts per game. Their backcourt mates, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, don't shoot much better.
What happens if Kentucky goes dry for long spells against a team that can score and defend, such as Arizona, whose offense and defense rank better than 97% of the country?
3. Remaining Teams That Match Up Well
The last part of what makes Kentucky so successful is their frontcourt size and team depth. So, the final part of the formula to beat Big Blue is matching up with them well, which we saw first hand in last year's Final Four versus Wisconsin. Arizona does that in spades, and there are other teams you can easily make the same argument for.
Let's start with Arizona. The West's Wildcats have our second overall nERD (20.57), which is only two points and change less than Kentucky on a neutral court. Further, this nERD would put Arizona close to several championship teams since 2000, including the 2013 Louisville Cardinals and the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats.
With a deep nine-man rotation, including two seven-footers who can play on both ends and an Adjusted Defensive Rating (86.8) that comes close to Kentucky's (85.6), Arizona matches up very well. Like Kentucky, they can win games on dominant defense alone if shooting goes dry.
However, Arizona also can shoot considerably better than Kentucky (their 48.9% ranks fifth nationally) and get to the free throw line more than Kentucky with 25.7 free-throw attempts per game (70.8% for season, 86.3% for NCAA Tournament). Their 36.2% shooting from three overall (40.0% for NCAA Tournament) isn't deadly, but it is better than Kentucky's. Their shooting keyed their win over Ohio State.
While Notre Dame and Wichita State in the Elite Eight have the offensive prowess but not the size and depth to match up with Kentucky, both Gonzaga and Duke do. Gonzaga has three big and versatile front court players, including former Kentucky player Kyle Wiltjer, a big-time scorer who can force the Kentucky bigs to the perimeter for the nation's best shooting team (52.6% field goal percentage).
Duke's Jahlil Okafor is a load inside, and the Kentucky frontcourt could possibly have trouble with his size and strength on the block. Double down on Okafor and then Duke will punish you from three point land. Overall, Duke is the third best shooting team in the country (50.7% field goal percentage).
What happens if Kentucky runs into a team that isn't afraid of them and matches up well?
Using the Math
While the math says that Kentucky has a 43.27% chance of winning it all, I like the field's approximately 56.73% chance better at this point based on what I've outlined above. Kentucky's sample size of 36 games is large enough to show they are an elite team regardless of their opponent's offensive or defensive prowess.
However, in a one game scenario where the perfect storm happens -- if their opponent has a top-15 Adjusted Offensive Rating and plays like it, Kentucky shoots poorly, and the opponent matches up well size and depth wise with Kentucky -- Kentucky is definitely vulnerable. For those reasons and the fact that Kentucky may have to get through three consecutive games like this after likely beating West Virginia on Thursday night, I'll go with the field.