For the first time since 2004-05, the Kentucky Wildcats find themselves in the SEC Tournament championship game. Their opponent today, the Mississippi St. Bulldogs, won this tournament last year to get into the NCAA Tournament, and most observers think that they have done enough to get into the Big Dance again this year by defeating Vanderbilt yesterday, 62-52.
For the Wildcats, the road to the SEC Tournament championship game was a blowout win over the Tennessee Volunteers. The 'Cats got hot from the perimeter yesterday and provided one of their best defensive efforts of the year. Combined with cold Volunteer shooting and numerous incidents between the two teams, the Vols simply folded (perhaps in part from the fatigue of three straight games) and Kentucky rolled.
So now, the setup is simply this: Mississippi St. should be in the tournament, but the only way they can be sure is to defeat Kentucky today. UK is unquestionably a #1 seed and will not be the #1 overall seed since Kansas won the Big 12 tournament yesterday, so from an NCAA seeding standpoint, this game is meaningless to Kentucky. Because of this, and the overtime loss they suffered at the hands of the Wildcats in Starkville the motivation advantage goes to the Bulldogs. Kentucky will have to be motivated by the fact that they haven't won this tournament since 2003-04.
More after the jump.
It turns out that the dashboard was not ready by the time we went to "press,"
so we won't have our dashboard available for this game but it did come in later (Thanks, as always, to Sylvar):
First of all, let's look at the overall stats:
This chart simply shows the season possession-based stats for the two teams. I have highlighted the team that has the advantage, blue for UK and peach for Mississippi St. The big takeaway here is that Kentucky is more efficient both defensively and offensively, shoots the ball very slightly better overall, and is a better offensive rebounding team. It's also interesting to note that UK has almost as high a block percentage as the Bulldogs, but UK spreads it around a bit more -- almost all of the Bulldogs' blocks come from Jarvis Varnado.
Now, let's take a graphical look at the last four games. The stats we'll be examining in these three graphs will be a couple of the most important of the Four Factors in this game: eFG% (offensive and defensive) and offensive rebound percent. First, offensive eFG%:
What we see here is that UK is the better shooting club, and while both teams are on a negative trend, UK shoots the ball slightly better. Of the Four Factors, this is the most important stat, accounting for 40% or so of their impact.
Defensively, the two teams look like this:
What we see here is that both teams have been improving defensively over the last four games, but UK is still showing up as the better overall defensive team, forcing opponents to shoot worse in virtually every game than Mississippi State.
Finally, we'll look at OR%
Here, we see our first divergence. The trend for UK in OR% over the last four games is distinctly positive, and the trend for the Bulldogs is negative overall, but note the little uptick in the Vanderbilt game. Even though Kentucky also showed an even more significant uptick, we can't ignore the fact that the Bulldogs seem to understand the importance of offensive rebounding. Make no mistake, rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding, is key to Kentucky's success this year, and was the reason we blew the doors off the Volunteers yesterday.
Mississippi State Roster
Mississippi St. Bulldogs Basketball Roster
Mississippi State Statistics
When UK took on the Bulldogs in Starkville, they were without the services of Ravern Johnson, the second leading scorer and dead-eye 3-point shooter for the Bulldogs. That game came down to overtime, but it was also a game in which Kentucky did not play well at all. Kentucky turned the ball over liberally and shot the ball very poorly from the perimeter. If UK repeats that effort today, I would be willing to bet against them.
But this UK team showed me yesterday that they are beginning to understand that each game, at this time of the year, is do or die. Despite the intense physicality of the game yesterday, Kentucky remained focused on one objective -- winning. If they retain that laser-like focus today and refuse to be distracted by the ebb and flow of the basketball game, I think UK will handle the Bulldogs comfortably.
The real question is whether or not this Kentucky team can find sufficient motivation now that they are secure in their position and have a somewhat insecure opponent. That is normally a formula for a loss, unless this young Wildcat team can find some kind of internal motivation that isn't obvious. I'm sure Coach Cal will provide plenty, but whether or not this team will internalize and commit to it is the big question, in my view.
Kentucky is a superior team in every meaningful way that is measurable. As we know, though, we don't compare statistics and declare the winner, and this game is all about motivation and focus. UK doesn't have to do anything particularly well, they just have to do everything well, just like they did yesterday (yes, I know free throws were a problem yesterday, but they were irrelevant). If the 'Cats are motivated and focused, this game will likely wind up much like the game yesterday. If not, this is an upset in the offing.
No prediction today. I am superstitious about such things, and yesterday's lack of a prediction worked out well.