So now it comes down to it. The Kentucky Wildcats and the Washington Huskies face off tonight for the right to take on the winner of the Michigan St. Spartans vs. the Connecticut Huskies for the championship of the Maui Invitational.
This is the game a fairly small but vocal segment of the Washington fan base has been pointing to ever since Enes Kanter and Terrence Jones changed their commitment from Washington to Kentucky. For Kentucky fans, it represents the first test of the 2010-11 Wildcats against a top-ranked team. These early-season matchups rarely hold big implications for the future, but it will give both Washington and Kentucky a clue about how good their respective teams really are, at least at this young stage of the season.
How They Got Here
Kentucky got to the semifinal by defeating a game but rebuilding Oklahoma Sooners team. For a while, it looked as if the 'Cats would run away with the affair, but thanks to a determined effort by the Sooners, tentative offense and matador defense by Kentucky, Oklahoma got within six late in the second half. Kentucky regrouped behind Jones to pull away for a convincing if not exactly inspiring win.
Washington had a much easier time of it, dismantling the Virginia Cavaliers in a game that was competitive for all of about 10 minutes. The domination by Washington was so complete that the game was statistically out of reach with 15 minutes left. Washington went on a 3-point shooting tear, shooting 70% from the arc and managing an eFG% of over 70%. When you shoot the ball that way, it pretty much doesn't matter what you do in other statistical areas.
A Look At Washington's Players
First, we'll look at who the Huskies lost from last year:
|Clarence Trent||6-5||225||Freshman||Lost – Minor reserve|
|Elston Turner||6-4||205||Sophomore||Lost – major reserve|
|Quincy Pondexter||6-6||215||Senior||Lost – Last year's leading scorer and rebounder|
The big loss was obviously Quincy Pondexter, arguably one of the best players ever at UW. He led the Dawgs in scoring, rebounding, minutes, and on the floor.
The other two losses are far less significant, especially considering how many players return from last year.
The new Huskies are:
|Terrence Ross||6-6||190||Freshman||New – impact freshman|
|Aziz NDiaye||7-0||260||Sophomore||New – JUCO transfer|
Of these, the two most significant are Terrence Ross, a Rivals 4* and good friend of Terrence Jones, and Aziz NDiaye, a JUCO transfer from the College of Southern Idaho who gives the Huskies more size in the post, and a shot-blocking presence.
Washington Huskies Basketball Roster
|Tyreese Breshers||33||F||Returning minor reserve||255||6-7||sophomore|
|Matthew Bryan-Amaning||11||F||Returning starter LS/LR||240||6-9||senior|
|Adbul Gaddy||-||G||Returning starter 2LA||190||6-3||sophomore|
|Darnell Gant||44||F||Returning reserve||225||6-8||junior|
|Justin Holiday||22||F||Returning starter 3LS/2LR||180||6-6||senior|
|Antoine Hosley||10||G||New 3LR||185||5-11||freshman|
|Venoy Overton||1||G||Returning major reserve LA||185||5-11||senior|
|Brendan Sherrer||42||F||Returning minor reserve||240||6-9||junior|
|Scott Suggs||15||G||Returning reserve||185||6-6||junior|
|Isaiah Thomas||2||G||Returning starter 2LS/3LA||185||5-8||junior|
Legend: LS = leading scorer, 2LS = 2nd leading scorer, etc.
One of the things that really impresses me looking at these stats are the assist % of Washington. Almost 62% of their baskets are assisted. That's really good. Kentucky is no slouch at 47%, but the passing of UW is striking.
Another thing that stands out is points/possession. UK isn't bad at 1.22, and that includes a fairly sloppy game against Oklahoma last night, but 1.31 by UW is strong -- too strong if UK allows anything like that.
Ken Pomeroy has this game as UW favored 51% to 49%, and that is simply a push. Both teams have nearly identical offensive and defensive efficiencies, and even though UK plays at a somewhat slower pace, that is likely more due to their youth and allowing opponents to dictate the tempo than to a desire to play slow. This game figures to be a track meet, and I don't think that works for or against either team.
The Four Factors:
Here's what the Four Factors to Winning comparison looks like for this game:
Overall, these two teams are remarkably similar on paper. Kentucky turns the ball over a bit more, hits the offensive glass a bit better, and gets to the line a bit more per field goal attempt than the Huskies. The Huskies shoot it a tiny bit better. What we learn from these stats is that so far, adjusted for competition, these two teams have played equally well.
I'm a little surprised at UW's OR% number, especially considering the solid front-line size they have. The Dawgs are small in the backcourt, especially the starters, but they are much bigger coming off the bench.
Wrapping It Up
This game is a good early-season test for both teams. The worst that can happen to the loser is a slight drop iin the polls unless, of course, the game is uncompetitive, in which case a larger drop and more questions will be forthcoming. But a close, competitive game here will hurt neither the reputation nor the season prospects for either team.
Washington is vastly more experienced than this Kentucky team, and that has to give them the advantage. Washington is very talented and speedy, and they shoot the ball very well from the perimeter, much like Kentucky. Neither team has a beastly inside game this year, and the similarities far outdistance the differences between these contestants.
The one thing, besides experience, that worries me about this matchup is that Washington should be a much better defensive team. Offensively, you can't really pick between them, but you have to worry about UK's defense (or rather, their lack of it) particularly given what we saw last night. I think Kentucky allowed Oklahoma to slow the game down last night, and when UK got comfortable in that pace, the Sooners began getting out on the break and scoring in transition. The one encouraging thing is that despite the fact the Huskies should be better defensively, they haven't been so far.
The point to that last paragraph is this -- if UK cannot stop the Sooners in transition, they have absolutely no chance of stopping the Huskies. Washington has arguably the best transition offense in Division I college basketball, and if UK lets the UW shooters run to the arc and get unopposed looks at 3, it's hard to imagine how the Wildcats can manufacture a win.
In the final analysis, this game is going to be about defense. Both offenses are capable and have shown repeatedly that they can put up impressive numbers. The question is, can either of these defenses stop the other team? As far as picking a winner goes, I think a neutral observer would have to pick Washington on experience alone. Kentucky may be somewhat more talented in an absolute sense, but Washington has, or should have, a better team since most of the players have been around a year or two and their freshmen provide depth, rather than starters.