We've all heard about how the Cornell Big Red are the best 3-point shooting basketball team in Division I, and of course, that should have fans rightly concerned. But what does it really mean to an offense?
What it means in terms of statistics is that it drives the effective field goal percentage of Cornell way up. Effective field goal percentage is simply shooting percentages normalized to a two-point shot. For example, we all know that shooting 33.3% from three is the equivalent of shooting 50% from 2-point range. eFG% is just a way of harmonizing the percentages into one overall number, effectively representing what your shooting percentage would be if every basket were converted to a 2-point basket.
So what we are going to do in this article is examine effective field goal percentage (eFG%) for both teams. As most of you know if you have read me, or practically any other basketball writer who likes to work off of what are known as the Four Factors to Winning, you know that eFG% is one of those factors, and is, in fact, the major factor. eFG% accounts for 40% of the value of the Four Factors to Winning.
So let's break Cornell and Kentucky down to see where they stand. Follow me past the jump.
This graph will be a comparison of both teams' eFG% over their last six games:
This graph shows us several important things. Notice the red line. This indicates the RPI ranking of the Cornell Big Red's opponents, and the blue line indicates the RPI level of Kentucky's opponents. In this case, higher is worse. As you can see, the Big Red have played inferior competition to Kentucky EXCEPT for the last two games, where they have played superior competition.
You'll see that with the exception of game 1, Cornell has shot a very high eFG% (dark red bar). In this case, higher is obviously better. In fact, even including game 1, Cornell averaged 62.7% from the field over the last 6 games. For comparison purposes, the leading eFG% team in the entire NCAA Division I for the year is Denver at 57.9%, and Cornell has been shooting well above that.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has an eFG% (dark blue bar) that is overall significantly worse than the Big Red EXCEPT for the last two games, in which UK has been right there with them. But before you get excited, keep in mind that the Big Red played two very good teams in the Temple Owls and the Wisconsin Badgers in games 5 and 6, while UK played higher seeds in the East Tennessee St. Buccaneers and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
The next thing to look at is the other side of eFG%, which is opponent eFG%, or the level of shooting efficiency that each team allowed their opponents. For Kentucky, this is the light blue bar and for Cornell, the peach colored bar. In this case, higher is worse.
A casual glance indicates that Kentucky is a superior defensive team with most of their light-colored bars well below those of Cornell. Note in particular the last two games, where Cornell played much better competition. They allowed over 50% shooting in both cases, and Kentucky has not allowed 50% shooting even one time in the last six games, despite playing much superior competition overall.
So what does all this mean? First of all, it means that Cornell is an offensive juggernaut and there is simply no getting around that fact. Both the tournament teams they have played are good defensive teams, and the Temple Owls, in particular, are a better defensive team than Kentucky (although not by much).
The bottom line is that so far, great defensive teams have not been able to stop the Big Red from scoring serious points and being very efficient offensively. That does not necessarily mean Kentucky cannot -- Kentucky presents teams with very special problems due to their extreme length and athleticism that even the Owls cannot match. But statistically, you can't be too encouraged by UK's great defensive numbers, because up until now, great defensive teams have not been able to stop Cornell.
On the flip side, both Temple and Wisconsin are average offensive teams, both shooting right around 50% eFG% for the season. Kentucky is much, much better than either of them offensively, and the Big Red was unable to hold either Wisconsin or Temple below 50% eFG%. This augers very well for the Wildcats, because the offensive advantages Kentucky has over the Big Red are truly legion, and it hasn't much mattered to Kentucky whether opponents play zone, man, or junk.
In summary, based on the discussion of eFG% we just had, if both teams continue to perform at the level they have so far in the tournament, this is going to be a classic shootout. Defenses, no matter how good, have not been able to stop Cornell. Conversely, Cornell's defense looks unlikely to be able to stop the Wildcats. So these statistics tell us that both teams are reasonably likely to shoot a high percentage somewhere in the 60's, if they hold true to tournament form.
One reminder, however. This is only one of the four factors, albeit the most important one. We'll get to the other three next, and try to put it all together.