Posted: 2:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, 2014
Many UK fans hold up the 2011 Final Four team as evidence that even underachieving teams can go on deep tournament runs. Using various rankings systems let's investigate if the 2010-11 and 2013-14 teams are in fact comparable.
This season has witnessed comparisons made between this University of Kentucky men's basketball team to the 2010-11 team which made it to the Final Four after an underachieving regular season. Below is a statistical comparison to measure the merits of this hypothesis.
Strength of Schedule
The above chart compares the 2010-2011 Kentucky Final Four basketball team and the current squad using Ken Pomeroy's system [Note: the 2014 numbers are derived from the morning after Wednesday's Auburn game]. An explanation of his measurements can be found here. As you can see, the "Pyth", or winning percentage, is higher for the 2010-11 team, as is the defensive efficiency (AdjD), and strength of schedule. This season's comparably weak schedule comes as little surprise. The SEC is down and several of UK's non-conference opponents have not lived up to their preseason hype. No doubt, the transition and perimeter defense throughout the season has hurt the AdjD ranking as well.
Complicating matters, this year's team is a slightly better offensive team (AdjO) that plays at a quicker tempo (AdjT) than that Final Four squad. The 2010-11 team were probably better perimeter shooters, but would not score in the paint like this year's team. Nor do I remember them being an uptempo team that pushed the pace.
It begs the question then: would the 2010-11 Final Four team indeed have a higher AdjO, AdjD, AdjT, and Pyth if they had this year's strength of schedule? I think that's probably true. Additionally, looking at the Kenpom rankings for 2011, this year's Kentucky team ranks similar to the 2011 BYU and San Diego State teams if the factors are Pyth strength of schedule and overall Pyth. Neither of those teams made it beyond the Sweet Sixteen. Last seaon, Georgetown and Pitt most resemble UK in the Kenpom rankings. Neither of those teams made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Match-ups are very important in the tournament and are why seeding can be very important. Joe Lunardi currently projects Kentucky as a three seed. Lunardi's projections can be spotty, but this sounds about right if Kentucky manages to split with Florida, win the rest of its SEC games, and has as strong showing in the conference tournament.
Though a four seed remains a possibility - just like the 2010-11 Final Four team's seeding. That year Kentucky beat: Princeton, West Virginia, Ohio State, and North Caroline en route to the Final Four. Those teams were ranked 75th, 18th, 1st, and 14th overall, according to the Kenpom. Lunardi's current projection has Kentucky facing teams with slightly higher rankings overall with two top five teams (Syracuse and Villanova), two top thirty teams (Iowa St. and Memphis), and an opening round opponent ranked 85th.
There is still a solid month left of the season to be played, but these rankings seem to indicate this year's UK team is not as good as the 2010-11 team. Yet, these are only one ratings system. ESPN BPI rankings did not come into existence until the 2011-12 season, but a rough comparison on StatSheet replicates the Kenpom results of the 2010-11 and this year's team. This year is a better offensive team, but not as good defensively. The track record appears clear that if you aren't at least a top twenty defensive team the odds of making it to the Final Four are slim. Calipari seems to just want modest improvement there, but history seems to indicate that won't be enough against elite teams in most cases.
There are reasons for hope. First, this year's statistics are still a limited sample size compared to previous seasons. I'd be curious as to how Kentucky was rated in the 2010-11 season at this point by Kenpom before they caught fire. Second, this team has a higher ceiling. The 2010-11 team had six players drafted by my count, but this year's team could have as many as eight or nine in the next few years. If the teams begins to minimize its mistakes further and continues to improve there won't be a team in the tournament who will want to face them in the first or second weekend of the tournament.
What do you think?