Radio show talkers and practically everyone else in college basketball are trying very hard to beat the Kentucky Wildcats, and the West Virginia Mountaineers are just the latest hopeful to crack the chatter scene. Recently, former Duke star Shane Battier threw himself 100% behind the Mountaineers and against the Wildcats in the upcoming Sweet Sixteen matchup:
"They’re No. 1 in forcing turnovers," Battier said. "They’re going to force 20 turnovers (against Kentucky). They are (one of the best teams in) offensive rebounding. What’s Kentucky’s weakness? Offensive rebounding. I think most importantly the toughness of West Virginia is going to give Kentucky problems. They’re going to sock them in the mouth and we’ll see how Kentucky reacts. I’m excited."
Well, I’m excited as well. It should be fun. But let’s examine Shane’s prognostication for just a second.
First off, there’s the turnovers. It’s true that WVU is #1 in forcing turnovers — they force over 28% turnovers on average, which means almost one possession in three the opponent turns the ball over against them. A quick perusal of Ken Pomeroy’s correlations indicate a very strong relationship between WVU’s defensive efficiency and their opponent turnover rate. When West Virginia has generated 30% or more turnovers, they are 14-1.
The flip side of this equation is that when the Mountaineers fail to achieve a high turnover rate, they tend to lose. When they are under 25% opponent turnovers, they are 4-5, and when they pry loose under 23% turnovers, they are 0-5. Even more interestingly, the teams who had games with low turnovers were all top 20 Kenpom.com teams that average about the same number of turnovers as Kentucky. For an example of what I mean, take a look at West Virginia’s loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament (Courtesy of Kenpom.com):
In this game, a lot went right for West Virginia — they made nine 3-pointers and shot over 50% from two. They even made a significantly above-average free throw percentage. So how did they lose this game?
Simple. They could not stop Baylor inside the arc, and they sent the Bears to the line for 34 unguarded 15-foot attempts, which they made at a respectable rate. The ‘Eers were only able to force 15% turnovers against Scott Drew’s team, and that is their weakness. If WVU cannot force turnovers, it’s very tough for them to win because their defense is not very good and their offense is generally inefficient without extra shots at the basket. Now, before you get stressed about the Mountaineer’s offensive efficiency, remember that Kentucky is nearly 10 points/100 possessions more efficient defensively than the Bears.
The bottom line is that WVU must get a high turnover rate to have a chance to beat bigger, more talented teams. It’s that simple. The correlation between opponent turnovers and success for the Mountaineers is one of the highest I’ve ever seen. Conversely, the correlation between lack of opponent turnovers and failure for the Mountaineers is also remarkably high.
But let’s stipulate that the ‘Eers are able to force all those turnovers out of Kentucky. West Virginia also happens to be #1 in another stat, one not so favorable to them — opponent free throw rate. Yes, that means that the Mountaineers send teams to the line more than any other team in the nation per field goal attempt. As you might expect, almost without exception the teams that got to the line a lot tended to lose if they made a poor percentage, but were very close, or won, if they made a high one.
Complicating things for the Mountaineers is the fact that Kentucky gets to the line way more than most teams. Not only that, the people the Mountaineers tend to foul are mostly guards and wings, which in Kentucky’s case is unlikely to lead to a poor free throw percentage.
Battier is also fond of the offensive rebounding of WVU, and for a fact, they are outstanding. West Virgina is 4th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. The problem is, they are an average defensive rebounding team — worse than Kentucky, in fact. Apparently unknown to Shane, Kentucky is no slouch on the offensive boards themselves. Where offensive rebounding tends to matter is when you beat the other team by a mile, not by a little. Where the ‘Eers have had a big rebounding advantage, they have often won. Where is was small, they often lost. The idea that the Mountaineers are going to dominate a taller team like Kentucky on the offensive and defensive glass seems… unlikely.
Finally, we address the much-vaunted "toughness" of West Virginia. I really find myself amused at the idea that the Mountaineers are considered automatically "tougher" than Kentucky. Let’s examine the record. Arkansas tried to beat up Kentucky. They lost. Cincinnati tried even harder. Defeat for the Bearcats. Florida was very physical. Lost at home, away, and in the SEC Tournament. Texas played UK physically, but to no avail. A final point; only two of these games was within single digits, and in none of them did Kentucky ever look in danger of losing.
The point here is that Kentucky is also tough — not just make-believe, trash-talk or reputation tough, but real-world battle-tested tough. They have repeatedly proven that they can take your punishment but they have absolutely no need to dish it out themselves, because they are always taller and more skilled than you are. So while the Wildcats may not have the trash-talking bad-boy image of West Virginia, they’ve faced, and beaten teams who have — every one of them.
Let me just finish up by saying that West Virginia absolutely can beat Kentucky — anybody remaining in the tournament can do it under the right conditions. The problem is, creating those conditions is surpassingly difficult — so difficult, in fact, that nobody has been able to do it in 36 consecutive tries. Pressing teams have not been able to do it — Arkansas is #20 in turnover % — not as good as WVU but close, and all they got from their pressing, up-tempo style was their backside handed to them — twice. Grind-it-out teams like Georgia have not been able to do it. Hot teams like Ole Miss have not been able to do it. Teams who have caught Kentucky on a bad day, like Texas A&M in College Station, found that the Wildcats "C" game was just good enough.
I’m not saying West Virginia can’t win because we know they can. What I am saying is that it will take a lot of things going right for them, and concomitantly wrong for Kentucky, for that to happen.