In the last article of this two-part series, we looked at the last game between the Indiana Hoosiers and Kentucky Wildcats as a cautionary tale about settling for the justifications some fans have used to suggest that the IU/UK Sweet Sixteen matchup will be easier than the December game:
- The hostile venue was a big reason for the loss;
- It was early in the year and Kentucky is nothing like they are now;
- IU struggled with road games this year;
- Indiana played a great game against UK the first time.
Those explanations, to varying degrees, won't serve to explain why Kentucky would win the rematch. But there are several other things that can:
Calipari learned a critical fact from the last game.
The most important reason Kentucky is likely to win this rematch boils down to one thing -- tempo. In the last contest, Kentucky allowed the Hoosiers to run at will, and tried to run with them. That gave the Hoosiers an advantage -- while Kentucky is comfortable playing at a high pace and has done so numerous times this season, they are generally pace-agnositc. Not so the Hoosiers.
Indiana plays significantly better at higher paces than
Kentucky at slower ones, and are much more pace-sensitive than Kentucky. At paces of 68 possessions and above, the Hoosers are 16-2. At paces of 67 and below, they are 11-6. This is not an overwhelming pace correlation, but it does suggest that the Hoosiers play their very best basketball, both defensively and offensively, at paces of 70 and above. Their four highest offensive efficiencies happened at paces of 68 ppg or greater.
Kentucky has seen teams like this before, and will mostly likely try to control the pace to around 65 possessions. There are lots of reasons this gives the Wildcats a better chance to win, but two of the most important are that it lets them get their defense set and minimizes transition 3's, where teams (particularly teams with smaller guards) often get their best 3-point looks (just ask Florida), and the fact that UK's superior athleticism and talent allow them to beat teams off the dribble in the half-court and get open looks and alley-oops.
This doesn't mean Kentucky won't run, they will -- they'll just pick their spots.
Kentucky has learned to defend the three better.
During the last game, 3-point defense was terrible. UK lost shooters that your can't lose, and were still discovering their defensive identity. Even if we assume that Indiana is just as adept at guarding the three as UK, the fact is that Indiana gets a much higher percentage of their points from the perimeter. If UK guards them like they did Iowa St. and Florida, the Hoosiers will have to find scoring inside the paint where Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones lurk.
The improvement of Marquis Teague at the point.
The Hoosiers still turn the ball over at around 20% of possessions in their league play. In conference, Kentucky turned it over at 15% of possessions, and that difference is mainly due to the tremendous improvement by Marquis Teague at running this team. If Kentucky wins, Teague's improvement will be a big reason why.
The loss of Verdell Jones III to a knee injury.
Many Indiana fans would tell you that Jones was the least important cog of the Indiana team, but he was a senior who was leading the team in assists, providing 23% of the Hoosier dimes. Jones was also a good defender, a long player on the wing who could effectively guard players like Doron Lamb, and a reliable if not spectacular midrange scorer. He was also a major force enabling the Hoosiers to run as well as they do. Jones' negatives included a tendency to turn the ball over.
Will Sheehey, the player taking his place, is taller, younger, and not nearly as athletic, although he is a better offensive player. But it is on defense, and in the floor game, where the major difference exists. Sheehey's lack of experience and foot speed make it hard for him to guard either the 2 or 3 spot against a team like Kentucky, and when Darius Miller is in the lineup, the Hoosiers are simply stuck with a major mismatch.
There are other statistical and non-statistical factors weighing in Kentucky's favor, but these four are the most significant. No, there is no way to guarantee a Kentucky win -- Indiana is a high-quality, very cohesive team that is capable of beating anybody, even Kentucky. After all, they have already defeated UK as well as the likes of the N.C. State Wolfpack, also a Sweet Sixteen participant, along with Michigan St., Ohio St., and Wisconsin, all members of the Sweet Sixteen.
Ken Pomeroy currently has the Wildcats as a 6-point favorite, although that calculus does not factor in the loss of Jones. Vegas currently reckons the Wildcats a 9-point favorite, and you can bet that Jones' absence figured into that calculation. But favorite or no, Kentucky is going to have to execute sharply on both ends of the court to defeat Indiana and move on to their third straight Elite Eight.