2012 Final Four: Previewing The Kentucky Wildcats, Favorites For A Reason

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 23: Marquis Teague #25 of the Kentucky Wildcats dunks on the Indiana Hoosiers in the first half during the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball South Regional Semifinal game at the Georgia Dome on March 23, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

While the Kentucky Wildcats may not be able to take out the Charlotte Bobcats, and while they must withstand what will be crippling intensity in the Final Four on Saturday versus Louisville ... we'll just keep repeating it: they are the favorites for a reason.

First things first: Kentucky is not better than the Charlotte Bobcats. Every time a great, star-studded basketball team begins to roll through the NCAA Tournament, we undergo the "Could [Great College Team A] beat [Really Bad NBA Team B]?" debate. It is a fun time-waster, but it is silly. Rotation players on even the worst NBA teams were still college stars, right?

Let's compare the lineups of this Kentucky team and the Charlotte Bobcats, using each Bobcat's stats from his final college season:

  • 1: Marquis Teague (32.5 MPG, 10.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 4.8 APG) vs. D.J. Augustin (37.3 MPG, 19.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 5.8 APG). Advantage: Charlotte.
  • 2: Doron Lamb (31.0 MPG, 13.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.5 APG) vs. Kemba Walker (37.6 MPG, 23.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.5 APG). Advantage: Charlotte.
  • 3: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (31.2 MPG, 12.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.9 APG) vs. Gerald Henderson (29.7 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.5 APG). Advantage: ...wait, Gerald Henderson is a starter on an NBA team? [Looks up stats] Wait ... Gerald Henderson is playing 33 minutes per game for an NBA team? Advantage: Kentucky.
  • 4: Terrence Jones (29.2 MPG, 12.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.4 APG) vs. Corey Maggette (17.7 MPG, 10.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.5 APG), I guess. Or Tyrus Thomas. Your choice. Advantage: Charlotte, by a small margin.
  • 5: Anthony Davis (31.7 MPG, 14.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.1 APG) vs. Byron Mullens (20.3 MPG, 8.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.3 APG). Advantage: ...you're kidding, right? Byron Mullens is averaging 20 minutes per game? And his primary backup is something called Bismack Biyombo? Yeah, there are too many damn NBA teams. Advantage: Kentucky.

Okay, so that was closer than I anticipated. Let's just move on before I start aching any further for the remaining NBA fans in Charlotte.


Final Four Team Previews: Louisville | Ohio State | Kansas


Kentucky head coach John Calipari mourns the NBA's one-and-done rules, but he isn't going to stop playing the one-and-done game. That he has built three consecutive great teams in Lexington with what feels like 100 percent turnover from year to year is amazing. Also amazing: the maturity with which this young team has played in the NCAA Tournament. They better be on their game to get past what is a salty, athletic, peaking Louisville team, but it is very obvious why they are the favorites. They not only have the best player, but they also have the most good players, too. Despite the same meager depth that faces Kansas and Ohio State, this is a great, great team with a wealth of weapons. But they still have some work to do.

Kentucky (36-2)


UK
Opp.
Pace (No. of Possessions)
65.0
Points Per Possession (PPP)
1.20 0.93
Points Per Shot (PPS)
1.38 1.02
2-PT FG% 52.8% 40.0%
3-PT FG% 37.8% 31.5%
FT% 72.7% 69.5%
True Shooting % 58.3% 46.0%




UK Opp.
Assists/Gm 13.4 10.6
Steals/Gm 6.1 5.4
Turnovers/Gm 11.3 11.7
Ball Control Index (BCI)
(Assists + Steals) / TO
1.73 1.37




UK Opp.
Expected Off. Rebounds/Gm 11.4 13.9
Offensive Rebounds/Gm 12.3 12.0
Exp. Rebounding Margin +2.8

Aside from perhaps a few deficiencies in the ball-handling game (defense, not offense), it is difficult to find much of a weakness in these numbers. They shoot the ball well from inside and beyond the arc. They don't turn the ball over. They out-rebound opponents by a fair margin (though in going for blocks -- they lead the nation in blocks, by the way -- they occasionally leave themselves vulnerable to offensive rebounds). They shoot 3-pointers almost as well as they allow their opponents to shoot 2-pointers. This is a wonderfully well-rounded team. If you are going to beat them, you almost definitely have to exploit their vulnerability on the glass and in the simple fact that they won't turn you over very much. It also might help to win the 3-point battle, which is easier said than done.

In Kentucky's two losses, they allowed Indiana and Vanderbilt to grab 26 offensive rebounds. As a bonus, Indiana made nine of 15 3-pointers against UK, while Vanderbilt held the Wildcats to 6-for-28 shooting beyond the arc in the SEC Tournament. (As much as a defense can "hold" an offense to poor 3-point shooting, anyway.) The 3-pointer is certainly an equalizer, and it can turn on teams at random times. The good news for Kentucky against Louisville, however, is that the Cardinals, while streaky, are on average rather terrible from the 3-point line.

Ken Pomeroy Stats

UK Offense vs UL Defense Ranks

UK Offense UL Defense Advantage
Efficiency 2 1 Push
Effective FG% 13 3 Push
Turnover % 20 34 Push
Off. Reb. % 18 236 UK Big
FTA/FGA 45 125 UK
UL Offense vs UK Defense Ranks

UL Offense UK Defense Advantage
Efficiency 102 11 UK
Effective FG% 225 1 UK Big
Turnover % 217 298 UL
Off. Reb. % 56 104 UL
FTA/FGA 164 8 UK Big

Where the Wildcats are weakest

They indeed do not force turnovers; it is not part of the defensive gameplan. They rank just 298th in Def. TO% and 200th in steals, which means they will most likely fail to take advantage of one (of many) of Louisville's offensive deficiencies. They also rank 187th in Def. FT%, which means they send guards to the line quite a bit.

Peripherally speaking, Kentucky also has an issue with depth (322nd in Bench Minutes) and experience (340th in Pomeroy's Experience measure). But it hasn't cost them to date, and it probably won't this weekend.

Where they are best

Everywhere else. On offense, they shoot well -- 21st in offensive 2PT%, 37th in offensive 3PT%, 59th in offensive FT% -- and don't give up costly steals. On defense, they block more shots than anybody in the country, they hold opponents to the second-lowest 2PT% in the country, and they tend to defend the 3-point line well, too. They are also 12th in the country in Effective Height (which probably goes without saying considering the blocks).

Kentucky Season to Date

  • Wins Versus Top 100 Teams (Team Rank is from KenPom.com)
    vs. No. 4 Kansas, 75-65
    No. 7 North Carolina, 73-72
    vs. No. 11 Indiana, 102-90
    No. 12 Florida, 78-58
    at No. 12 Florida, 74-59
    vs. No. 12 Florida, 74-71
    No. 15 Louisville, 69-62
    at No. 16 Vanderbilt, 69-63
    No. 16 Vanderbilt, 83-74
    vs. No. 17 Baylor, 82-70
    vs. No. 27 Iowa State, 87-71
    No. 30 Alabama, 77-71
    at No. 62 Tennessee, 65-62
    No. 62 Tennessee, 69-44
    No. 88 Ole Miss, 77-62
    at No. 89 Mississippi State, 73-64
    at No. 98 LSU, 74-50
    vs. No. 98 LSU, 60-51
    vs. No. 99 Old Dominion, 62-52
  • Losses
    at No. 11 Indiana, 72-73
    vs. No. 16 Vanderbilt, 64-71

10-2 versus the Top 20, 19-2 versus the Top 100. That isn't bad. They did have some near-misses -- on back-to-back Saturdays, they barely got past Tennessee (in Knoxville) and Alabama (at home). But that was in January. Aside from Florida in the SEC Tournament, no team not named Vanderbilt has stayed within even eight points of the Wildcats since the calendar flipped to February.

Kentucky Player Stats

Player AdjGS*/Gm GmSc/Min Line
Anthony Davis (6'10, 220, Fr.) 20.5 0.65 31.7 MPG, 14.3 PPG (67% 2PT, 15% 3PT, 71% FT), 10.1 RPG, 4.6 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 1.1 APG
Terrence Jones (6'9, 252, So.) 13.1 0.45 29.2 MPG, 12.6 PPG (53% 2PT, 33% 3PT, 64% FT), 7.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.4 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.7 TOPG
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (6'7, 232, Fr.) 12.2 0.39 31.2 MPG, 12.0 PPG (53% 2PT, 26% 3PT, 76% FT), 7.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 2.2 TOPG
Doron Lamb (6'4, 210, So.) 10.9 0.35 31.0 MPG, 13.6 PPG (47% 2PT, 47% 3PT, 83% FT), 2.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 TOPG
Darius Miller (6'8, 235, Sr.) 8.4 0.32 26.0 MPG, 10.0 PPG (57% 2PT, 38% 3PT, 79% FT), 2.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.4 TOPG
Marquis Teague (6'2, 189, Fr.) 7.8 0.24 32.5 MPG, 10.0 PPG (44% 2PT, 31% 3PT, 72% FT), 4.8 APG, 2.6 RPG, 2.8 TOPG
Kyle Wiltjer (6'9, 239, Fr.) 3.7 0.31 11.9 MPG, 5.1 PPG (44% 2PT, 43% 3PT, 82% FT), 1.8 RPG
Eloy Vargas (6'11, 244, Sr.) 0.9 0.14 6.3 MPG, 0.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG

* AdjGS = a take-off of the Game Score metric (definition here) accepted by a lot of basketball stat nerds. It redistributes a team's points based not only on points scored, but also by giving credit for assists, rebounds (offensive & defensive), steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls. It is a stat intended to determine who had the biggest overall impact on the game itself, instead of just how many balls a player put through a basket.

  • Highest Usage%: Jones (23%), Wiltjer (22%), Kidd-Gilchrist (21%), Lamb (20%)
  • Highest Floor%: Davis (52%), Lamb (44%), Jones (42%), Miller (42%)
  • Highest %Pass: Teague (67%), Miller (55%), Kidd-Gilchrist (44%), Lamb (40%)
  • Highest %Shoot: Wiltjer (53%), Davis (42%), Lamb (42%), Jones (41%)
  • Highest %Fouled: Davis (20%), Jones (15%), Kidd-Gilchrist (15%), Lamb (14%)
  • Highest %T/O: Wiltjer (9%), Kidd-Gilchrist (8%), Jones (7%), Teague (7%)

The whole "100 percent turnover from year to year" thing is made easier when you bring in freshmen as good as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The two have combined with sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to create the most fearsome foursome (sorry) in the country this season. Throw in steady role players like Darius Miller (nail open shots, pass to the open man), Marquis Teague (dish to the open man, often in lob form), and Kyle Wiltjer (nail open shots), and it isn't hard to see why the Wildcats have lost just twice this season.

That said, this isn't a flawless team.

1. There is no true go-to scorer -- Kidd-Gilchrist and Lamb have obviously had plenty of moments, but their Usage Rate suggests that neither has just a ton of experience when it comes to "We need a basket, and I'm putting this team on my shoulders." Even distribution is often a good thing, and with nobody over 23 percent Usage, that's what Kentucky has here, but having a go-to guy is obviously quite nice come Final Four time.

2. They can sometimes lose the plot on offense. Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones have combined to take 68 3-pointers this year despite the fact that they make only 28 percent of them. Marquis Teague has suffered through turnoveritis at times (six versus Old Dominion, six versus Lamar, five versus Tennessee, five versus Florida, four in the Elite Eight versus Baylor). And again, they couldn't find the range on their 3-pointers versus Vanderbilt (4-for-16 in the first half) but just kept right on taking them (2-for-12 in the second). This is still a young team. But they have won big this year because their bouts with immaturity tend to only last possessions at a time, not halves at a time.

3. If something happens to Marquis Teague ... what happens? Only eight players have logged more than 50 minutes of game time for the Wildcats this season, only two of whom could even pretend to be point guards. Darius Miller might be the second-best passer on the team. Teague has handled the stresses of playing point for a big-time team quite well for a freshman; he does average nearly three turnovers per game, but in almost 33 minutes per contest. But if something happens to him -- he picks up a second (or third) foul early, he tweaks an ankle -- I'm not sure what the backup plan is. Kentucky is explosive enough to potentially survive without a primary distributor (after all, they do it for at least 7.5 minutes per contest). But with Louisville's aggressive backcourt, it could be an issue.

4. They are not necessarily battle-tested in the crunch time department. They have played only seven games all season that were decided by six points or fewer or in overtime. Final Four opponent Louisville has played 11. This only matters if Louisville can keep it close into the final minutes, of course, but it is still at least a small concern.

5. Anthony Davis' ankle is only 90 percent. But we're sort of grasping at straws now.

Prognosis

Again, they are the favorites for a reason. Saturday's game versus Louisville will be the most intense this batch of freshmen and sophomores has ever played, but they have passed every test to date. The only reason to truly doubt them at this point is to point out that they are young, or point out that John Calipari hasn't won a national title yet. Neither of those reasons has to do with this specific collection of players.

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