The Kentucky Wildcats' quest for perfection continues tonight as UK takes on the fighting Mike Breys from Notre Dame. Brey has decreed the Irish as "America's team" going into tonight and I wanted to statistically preview the ‘Cats vs. University of America at South Bend.
The whole week leading up to the Kentucky vs. West Virginia game it became chic and edgy to rattle off the reasons that the Mountaineers would beat Kentucky. At one point, if a foreigner came in and did not know the results of the season you would have thought that Kentucky was the underdog with a puncher's chance of pulling off the upset against the professional pilferers from West Virginia.
We all know the rest of story, Kentucky rolled on as a train on a track of destiny while West Virginia proved to be little more than a brisk wind in the opposite direction. Before the first TV timeout, anyone with a working knowledge of college basketball knew the game was over and the pundits began generating a narrative of how Notre Dame was going to take down UK and Big Blue Nation.
The popular analysis is that Notre Dame is so good offensively that they will give the Cats' a challenge they have not seen and could knock the proverbial Goliath out. Unfortunately, that is where the narrative stops and the rest of the story goes either ignored or deflected.
The truth is that Notre Dame is a quality opponent, they went 3-1 against Duke and North Carolina this year. They are great offensively, well coached, and may have the best player on the floor in Jerian Grant. Notre Dame is basically 2014 Michigan wearing green and gold instead of maize and blue.
In essence, Kentucky has already played this game, it was in last year's elite 8 as well. The difference is that the Wildcats are much better this year.
Here are the Kentucky and Irish comparison numbers, and like last time I have highlighted the potential advantages for each team.
Here are the areas that stand out to me:
- Blocks Per Game: Everybody knows that Kentucky is one of the top shot blocking teams in America. I think it will come in to play less than normal from a statistical standpoint, but it will still have an impact. Notre Dame is great at driving and dishing. I think it will cause Notre Dame to dish out even more and probably shoot more outside shots than they want. Against most teams, those are very open shots, a lot of them will not be as open as they would be against Kentucky's length (Advantage: Kentucky).
- Field Goal % and FG % Defense: Notre Dame shoots it better than all but one team in America. Having said that, Kentucky defends better than ANYONE in America. It is a classic immovable object and irresistible force dilemma. I like Kentucky in this because defense never slumps and like in baseball, good pitching beats good hitting (Advantage: Kentucky).
- Rebounding: Both Teams rebound it on the defensive end about the same per game, but offensive rebounding is a big discrepancy. Kentucky gets 40% of their misses and Notre Dame only ¼ of theirs. From a purely math standpoint if both teams get off 50 normal shots, Kentucky will get an extra 20 shots up and Notre Dame would only get up an extra 13 from the Offensive boards (Advantage: Kentucky).
- KenPom: To use the narrative that Notre Dame's offense could prove to be too much for UK is just lazy. You are not taking into account A) UK's Defense and B) Notre Dame's Defense. Notre Dame is a veritable offensive juggernaut as the nation's #3 most efficient offense. Kentucky is no slouch at #6 in offensive efficiency. While they are admittedly on a lower level than Notre Dame offensively, if you are a gambler would you put money on the #3 offense vs. the #1 defense, or the #6 offense vs. the #99 defense? It seems an obvious choice to me. (Advantage: Kentucky).
To summarize the above, do I think Notre Dame can beat Kentucky, absolutely. While West Virginia actually had more on paper advantages, the matchup for them was terrible in every way. Kentucky is a 12-point favorite and based on the analysis I would say that is accurate. Notre Dame has the ability to score and score a lot. If the Wildcats find themselves sleepwalking to the 2nd TV timeout and/or building brick houses, then we are in for a battle and that is a very generous spread. If Kentucky does a few of the following, they will win comfortably.
- Shoot 45+ percent
- Make 7-8 threes
- Hold the Irish to under 40% shooting
- Win the rebounding and turnover battle
Not only are they highly likely to accomplish several of those things, they could very easily accomplish them all. The truth of the matter is if Kentucky plays an average game and Notre Dame plays anything less than lights out, we will probably see a double digit pull away at the end for UK. The difference in the Irish and Wildcats' offense is just not enough to overcome the difference in the defense.
However, it is March Madness and ANYONE can beat ANYONE on any given night, I just think Kentucky will have to really stink it up (and they could) to lose this one. As I mentioned before, Michigan 2014 is a mirror image of 2015 Notre Dame and UK 2015 is a full notch above the 2014 Wildcats. Advantage Kentucky.