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Death By Statistics: Why UK Fans Should Worry About Cornell

Yesterday, we took a look at effective field goal percentage and what it means to a basketball team, specifically the Cornell Big Red and the Kentucky Wildcats.

Today, we are going to place shooting in the context of the other Four Factors to Winning.  You remember I told you that shooting was far and away the major contributor to the Four Factors to Winning, comprising fully 40% of the relative value of the four stats.  That leaves 60% to be divided as follows:

  • Turnovers (25%)
  • Offensive rebounding (20%)
  • Getting to the free throw line (15%)

Now, you may ask why each of these are so important.  In a nutshell, turnovers reduce the number of shots you can take.  If you turn the ball over, that is an empty possession, and 100% of the shots a team doesn't take results in a net scoring opportunity for the opponent.  Offensive rebounding is kind of the reverse of a turnover -- it generally (but not always) gets you an extra shot.

Getting to the free throw line is important because the free throw line is the most efficient place to score.  Teams that get to the line often tend to be very efficient offensively.

So now that we have all this figured out, how does this impact the game tomorrow?  Follow me after the jump to find out.

The first thing we will be looking at is the graph of the remaining three factors placed in the context of shooting percentage and team performance.  What I have chosen to measure performance is simply the difference between offensive and defensive efficiency, which represents the margin of the game if it were 100 possessions rather than 70, or whatever, as dictated by the pace of play.  Efficiency is simply points scored (or allowed) per 100 possessions.

With that in mind, UK's last six games look like this (Note:  you can click on these graphs for a larger version):

UK Analysis

Now, this graph looks really busy, but it isn't as hard to follow as it looks.  We are looking at the same six games we looked at yesterday, but we are adding some data and looking only at Kentucky.

First, look at the yellow line.  That shows how UK did -- the higher it is, the more the 'Cats won by.  The last two games are the tournament games, and they look great, but there are 3 games that don't look so good.  One of them I noted, game 4, which was the overtime win over the Mississippi St. Bulldogs.  But UK had also had a couple of other close games previous to that.

So what was holding UK down?  Kentucky has been shooting pretty well all year, and was well over 50% for all but the MSU game.  So why were games 1 and 2 so close when they out-shot both teams by about 10% (the orange line is UK's eFG%, and the purple line is the opponent's eFG%)?  If you look at the bars, you'll see they are grouped by color -- blue for turnovers, red for rebounding, and green for getting to the line.  Look at the red bars in game 1, 2 and 4.  That tells you why UK had such a tough time -- they were out-rebounded on the offensive glass.

While it is true that they were out-rebounded offensively by the East Tennessee St. Buccaneers as well, it was just by a tiny bit and UK out-shot that team by a vast margin, just as they did the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.  The bottom line is the old coach's maxim that shooting covers up a lot of other mistakes.  Shoot the ball a lot better than your opponent, and winning is easy.  But offensive rebounding, turnovers and free throw margin can cut into a shooting advantage, sometimes enough to change the outcome of the game.

Now, let's look at Cornell's last six games:


Cornell Analysis

It may not hit you at first glance, but this graph should make you very, very nervous.   First of all, look at the eFG% (orange line) that Cornell is putting up.  Folks, that is lights-out.  Their last two opponents shot way over 50%, normally a very solid, and even excellent number, and lost HUGE.

Now, to be sure, if both those teams had shot on the order of 65% like UK did against ETSU and Wake Forest, those games might have gone a little differently.  And Cornell also out-rebounded both their early-round opponents as well as out-shooting them.  And you can see how the other four factors can come into play, even the least of them -- free throw rate.  Look at Cornell's game 1 -- they were out-shot from the field, out-rebounded on the boards, and still won.  Why?  Lopsided FTR%, of course.  As I said, the most efficient way to score.  Plus, Cornell is a very good free throw shooting team.

But the thing that strikes me most is that Cornell shoots the ball so well that the other four factors are almost completely overwhelmed.  It doesn't really matter if they get out-rebounded or send the opponent to the line a lot -- they shoot so well, it's hard to fail bad enough in the other four factors to lose.

The bottom line here is that all these predictions of a UK blowout just don't square with the reality of what we've seen so far.  Yes, UK has superior athletes, and yes, the Big Red really don't have good defensive or rebounding answers for what the 'Cats are going to bring.

What I'm telling you is this -- if Cornell comes out and shoots an eFG% of 70+% against Kentucky, UK will lose no matter what.  UK has only shot 69% or better twice -- versus the Hartford Hawks and versus the Sam Houston St. Bearkats, and Cornell is superior to those teams by a wide margin.  It is almost unimaginable that UK can shoot much better than 65% against Cornell -- we just don't have those kind of shooters, and Cornell is big enough to make a dunk-a-thon unlikely.

Fortunately, UK is more capable on defense than any team the Big Red have played, and it would be truly remarkable if they could shoot that well against a Kentucky defense.  But based on their body of work, you have to believe that they are going to out-shoot Kentucky, and that means that Kentucky must win at least two of the other three Four Factors by a wide margin, and not lose the fourth by too much.  While it is theoretically possible that UK could out-shoot the Big Red, it is statistically very unlikely.

So don't let the pundits fool you, and I hope Calipari isn't letting them fool the team.  Cornell is not just a dangerous team, they are a genuine threat to defeat Kentucky if the 'Cats do not bring their "A" game.  A "B" game out of UK means the chances for defeat go way up, and I don't think the Wildcats can play poorly against this team and win.

So sleep well, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation -- but don't sleep thinking we will have an easy game tomorrow.  This Cornell team is a major challenge, perhaps even more major than a weakened West Virginia Mountaineers team.