Final Four Preview: Kentucky Against the Field
It's one of the most talented Final Fours we've seen over the last 15 years, but despite the great teams playing, there's still a "Kentucky versus the field" vibe.
I guess that's what happens when you're attempting to become the first undefeated college basketball team in 39 years.
Is Kentucky really a lock? What should we expect from this weekend's Final Four games? What are some of the things to watch for?
Let's dive in and take a look.
Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
Kentucky nERD: 23.17
Wisconsin nERD: 20.22
Kentucky's 23.17 nERD -- the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average squad on a neutral court -- is the second-highest rating our numbers have given a team since the turn of the century. Duke's 2001 team is the only one that ranks higher, despite losing four games. That Duke team was, however, full of NBA talent, and did win the National Championship.
Sleeping on Wisconsin would be a mistake, though. The Badgers enter this contest as our third-best college hoops team with a 20.22 nERD, the 20th-best squad we've calculated since 2000.
Strictly from a nERD standpoint, we'd expect Kentucky to win this game by fewer than three points.
Yeah, it's pretty close, all things considered.
Kentucky's defense can be brutal for opposing offenses -- they allowed just 53.9 points per game this season (second in the country), had a block percentage of 12.7 (second in the country) and, per Sports-Reference.com, finished with an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 76.46 (best in the country).
That's the best Adjusted Defensive Rating recorded by Sports Reference over the last five years.
On the other side, though, is Wisconsin's offense. Though they ranked just 41st in the country in points per game this year, according to our metrics, Wisconsin ranks in the 99.99th percentile in offensive efficiency, better than any team in college hoops. They just play at a slow pace, resulting in a lower points scored average.
Naturally, that's going to be the most interesting high-level thing to watch in this game: you have a rather historic defense facing off against a historically good offense.
Matchup to Watch: The Rebounding Battle
But what I'm just as interested in is the rebounding battle. Kentucky was fifth in the country this year in offensive rebounding percentage, coming in as a top-10 team in extra scoring chances per game. Meanwhile, Wisconsin finished third in defensive rebounding rate. It shouldn't surprise anyone if this game is won or lost on the boards -- if Wisconsin can limit those second-chance points, as they've done well all year long, they can certainly pull the upset.
Our Pick: Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State
Duke nERD: 19.31
Michigan State nERD: 14.17
The other side of the bracket brings a contest between the two "bad" remaining Final Four teams. But bad really isn't a great descriptor -- since 2000, this Duke team ranks as the 19th-best Final Four squad our nERD rating has seen. And even though Michigan State is a 7 seed, there have still been 11 Final Four teams with a worse nERD, including last year's champion, UConn.
A big reason Duke has made it to the Final Four is because of their -- wait for it -- defense. Yes, the offense is one of the best groups in the nation, currently ranking only behind the aforementioned Wisconsin in efficiency. But defensively, Duke has moved from a pre-tourney 76th percentile ranking all the way up to the 84th percentile. Our own Stew Bratcher documented this shift in more detail yesterday.
Michigan State has played in tight contests all season long, including an overtime thriller against Louisville to win the East Region, their eighth of the season. According to Sports-Reference.com, they rank 16th in Adjusted Offensive Rating and 21st in Adjusted Defensive Rating -- though they're a 7 seed, they're clearly better than that, as we showed before the tournament started.
A key to this game will be how Michigan State contains Justice Winslow -- the best performer of the tournament thus far -- and Jahlil Okafor; specifically Okafor. They've had trouble this season against Frank Kaminsky, a player of Okafor's size and relative talent, as Kaminsky dropped 31 and 19 points on them in their two games.
Matchup to Watch: Getting to the Line
During the regular season, Michigan State ranked fifth to last in percentage of points from free throws, and a measly 337th in free throw percentage. In their 10-point loss to Duke early in the 2014-2015 season, the Spartans got to the line just 10 times, while Duke was able to hit the charity stripe 26 times. The difference in points scored from the line was 14, a margin greater than what Michigan State lost by. If Sparty wants a shot at the upset, they'll need to not only hit their free throws when they get to the line, but they'll also need to get to the line more frequently, forcing Duke into a little foul trouble.
Our Pick: Duke