No top seed in the NCAA tournament has a tougher row to hoe than the Kentucky Wildcats do this year if they are to reach the third weekend of the 2011 NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are the only team remaining in the NCAA tournament that has to go through both the #1 and likely the #2 seed to get to the Final Four.
When Wildcats fans (including yours truly) complained bitterly about the seeding that Kentucky received, this is what they were complaining about. As a 3 seed in the same bracket, Kentucky would have had a substantially easier road to the regional final. But that is water under the bridge. The NCAA chose to give us the toughest track available to a top 4 seed, and Kentucky, for the first time all year, looks up to the challenge.
The conventional wisdom places the Wildcats at a disadvantage against the Ohio St. Buckeyes, and that conventional wisdom is supported by statistics -- the Buckeys shoot the ball better than Kentucky (one of relatively few who can make that claim), they handle the ball just as well, rebound and get to the line about the same. The shooting stat is the one that worries Kentucky fans, especially after the exhibition that the Buckeyes put on against the George Mason Patriots. The Patriots are no Kentucky, but they are a solid team, and Ohio St. beat them like they collectively made mama jokes about their maternal parent -- and meant them.
But I am now going to explain why and how Kentucky can beat the Buckeys on Friday.A log5 analysis of this game using Ken Pomeroy's adjusted numbers suggest that Ohio St. has a 76% chance of defeating the Wildcats. That seems solid considering the strength of schedule for both OSU and Kentucky were very close.
What this analysis cannot, and doesn't really try, to account for is team improvement. It assumes that team improvement will be reflected in essentially the scoring margin, and the higher the delta between offensive and defensive efficiency, the higher the scoring margin. The problem with this, as Pomeroy freely admits, is that without a cap on the margin, it can create statistical anomalies, but he hasn't found a method to cap the score that he can live with yet.
I would posit that Kentucky's improvement isn't reflected in its scoring margin. What we have seen over the last seven or eight games is a Wildcat team that finally figured out the way to win with consistency. Kentucky isn't just trying to outscore teams, as it has done so often this year. Now, they are looking for ways to win games, and winning and scoring are not the same thing. You have to score to win, but scoring in timely places, and in different ways, like the last-second game-winner versus Princeton, is an under-appreciated skill.
Kentucky has now won many close, competitive games in a row. Ohio State has yet to play a competitive game in the tournament, and both those games were considered "semi-home," which is, for example, like Kentucky playing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Louisville this year. That game was not a neutral site, because Kentucky fans were always going to vastly outnumber Irish fans. Kentucky won that game against the former #2 seed handily.
In fact, the Buckeyes have not played a competitive game since March 12th, when they were in a tussle with the Michigan Wolverines in the Big 10 tournament. Since then, the games have been easy and the margins of victory impressive.
So let's look at the things that inure to Kentucky's benefit versus the Buckeyes on Friday:
- Kentucky is the faster team. They haven't played much faster, but Kentucky is significantly more athletic 1-5 than the Buckeyes are.
- Ohio State has not been seriously challenged in the tournament. You cannot call the Buckeyes "tournament tough" this year, not yet. Kentucky is tournament tough, after having won close games in the SEC and tough scrums in the NCAA tournament.
- Kentucky played a tougher schedule this year than Ohio St.
- Kentucky has a slightly better winning percentage against top 25 teams than OSU.
- Ohio St. played 5 more home games this year than Kentucky did. That may have helped pad their scoring margin, as Ken Pomeroy figures about a 2.8% margin advantage for home games.
- Kentucky is longer and taller than Ohio State.
Of course there are things that auger in the Buckeye's favor as well, but that is beyond the scope of this article. The point is, Kentucky has a number of things in this game working in its favor, maybe more than are working against them. Buckeye fans are not likely to outnumber Kentucky fans in a truly neutral environment like New Jersey, and depending on how close fans can get to creating a home environment, that could significantly affect the outcome. By utilizing Pomeroy's formula for home court advantage and making it 1% instead of 1.4%, the game becomes a 56-44% Ohio St. advantage.
This game is not a push by any means, odds-wise, but it is closer than many think, and I really like the intensity and intelligence that this UK team has been playing with lately. Bad games by this player or that have not kept Kentucky team winning, and Ohio State relies even more on the 3 point shot than Kentucky does. The X-factor is how well Josh Harrellson plays against Jared Sullinger, and that matchup is not as one sided as it might have appeared as recently as a month ago.
Win or lose, this UK team has played with great heart, desire and brains, and they have gotten better and better over the last six weeks. That's what Calipari meant when he said he thought no team in America had more upside than Kentucky, and that was way back before the 'Cats proved him right by winning the SEC Tournament and then two very tough contests in the NCAA Tournament's first two rounds.
I must say that I am even prouder of this team than last year's, given the limitations they were handed by the NCAA earlier with Kanter's exclusion. This is not the team that UK expected to be fielding in the tournament last summer.
But it might just be the best in spite of that.