Coming off a nail-biting defeat to the Tennessee Volunteers last weekend in the SEC Tournament semifinals game, the Kentucky Wildcats look to rebound by kicking off their NCAA Tournament with a win over the Abilene Christian Wildcats.
Throughout the course of this season, a large part of Kentucky’s success has been due to their size. On Thursday night, even if there are mild questions surrounding PJ Washington and his walking boot, head coach John Calipari will most certainly utilize the team’s height advantage once again against Abilene Christian.
During the SEC tournament, Calipari resorted to playing both reserve forwards EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards at the same time while resting his starting duo of PJ Washington and Reid Travis. While the former had a few flaws, they also had their moments of shine and could very well carry that momentum into the sport’s greatest tournament.
Kentucky’s guard/wing tandems of Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro also had their shine during the SEC Tournament and should be poised to continue that trend with the hopes of leading Kentucky to their ninth National Championship banner.
The favorable matchups will sway depending on Kentucky’s opponent, but achieving the season’s highest award will require a collective effort that the Wildcats are indeed capable of fronting. The question, however, is can they do it for 240 minutes of basketball. We’ll know, soon enough.
In terms of advanced analytics, this is as big of a mismatch as you’d imagine. Kentucky, who currently ranks No. 12 in offensive efficiency and No. 11 in defensive efficiency, is one of just five teams that rank in the top 15 of both KenPom efficiency stats. That’s a big reason why the Cats rank No. 7 overall and look as dangerous as anyone to make a run to Minneapolis.
ACU can’t quite measure up, as those Wildcats rank No. 186 in offensive efficiency and No. 122 in defensive efficiency.
One area where ACU could give Kentucky problems is forcing turnovers. The Wildcats from Texas force opponents into turnovers 20.8% of all plays, which is No. 4 nationally. They also hold opponents to an assist-turnover ratio of 0.700, which ranks No. 6 nationally.
Ashton Hagans has struggled at times to take care of the ball this season, so this should be a good test for him as he looks to prove he’s an NBA-caliber point guard.
Kentucky finished the season just 17-16 vs. the spread, covering just 50% of the time (15-15) as a favorite. When Kentucky had at least four days off, though, they were a spiteful 6-2 vs. the spread.
While there weren’t many opportunities, Kentucky was just 7-6 vs. the spread when suiting up against teams outside of the SEC. Kentucky also hasn’t covered when favored after a loss, going 2-3 vs. the spread.
- 17-16 vs. the spread this season
- 15-15 vs. the spread as favorite
- 2-3 vs. the spread following a loss
- 7-6 vs. the spread in non-conference games
- 2-3 vs. the spread on a neutral court
- 15-13-1 vs. the spread this season
- 11-11-1 vs. the spread as favorite
- 11-11-1 vs. the spread following a win
- 5-3-1 vs. the spread in non-conference games
- 3-4 vs. the spread with 4 or more days off.
TeamRankings projects Kentucky to win by a final score of 77-54.
numberFire actually thinks it will be much closer, as they have Kentucky pulling out a 75-65 victory. Perhaps they think PJ may not play?
KenPom projects a 75-59 victory for Kentucky.
Massey Ratings have Kentucky winning 76-56.
Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader has the game as a PUSH, scoring the final decision 87-65 in favor of Kentucky.
Boozell’s colleague, Wayne Staats, has Kentucky advancing past Abilene Christian in the first round. However, Staats is going out on a limb and claiming No. 7 seed Wofford will upset Kentucky on Saturday.
Our own staff picks feature seven picks for Kentucky advancing past ACU with every score being at least an 18-point margin.
Our roundup of NCAA Tournament expert picks from around the net all have Kentucky making at least the Elite Eight.
Kentucky’s favorable matchup here is their size advantage in the painted area. Thankfully, Kentucky’s front court provides the majority of the team’s experience which could wind up being significant for the freshmen and their first game of the “Big Dance.”
With respect to Abilene Christian, the first half could very well be relatively close. However, the Blue Blood Wildcats should firmly pull away to close out an opening-round victory.
Final Score: Kentucky 72, Abilene Christian 51
What is your prediction for Thursday’s clash in the Sunshine State?