Four for Four: Perception vs. reality

March, 26, 2012
3/26/12
2:00
PM ET
We're five days away from the Final Four. There is much to learn, or relearn, in that time. Now that you've finished with Myron's early primer (and if you aren't, what are you waiting for?), let's look at four big themes you should know about the teams involved, the road they took to get here and the weekend's event itself. We're calling this little mini-series Four for Four, which is not particularly clever but the best we can do on the Monday morning after an insane weekend. Check back throughout the day for each brief installment.

Now: Statistical perception vs. reality, or: Kentucky has the worst defense -- and the best offense -- in the Final Four.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Mark Zerof/US PresswireAnthony Davis and the Kentucky Wildcats can score at will, but they'll have to lean on their defense to win a national title.
All season long, thanks in large part to the sheer visual spectacle that is Anthony Davis' shot-blocking ability, the Wildcats have been lauded as a transformational defensive force. And make no mistake: They do defend. The Wildcats rank No. 11 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, and their defensive performance was among the best, or tied for the best, in their conference. Anytime you have Davis manning the middle, an all-court ball-stopper like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the wing, and a rebounding force like Terrence Jones in the mix, you're going to shut some teams down. No question.

But for all the plaudits, where Kentucky really excels is on offense. By now, frequent readers will be well aware of this fact; three weeks ago, ESPN Insider colleague and Basketball Prospectus scribe John Gasaway officially declared March "Kentucky's offense is better than its defense" month, thanks primarily to UK's remarkable per-possession efficiency margin in SEC play. The Wildcats scored 1.20 points per trip in their undefeated SEC run, a number that vastly eclipsed what even the best second-tier offenses (Florida, Vanderbilt et al) did in the league.

The tournament has only reinforced this fact. UK averaged a downright ridiculous 1.27 points per possession on its road to the Final Four, blitzing and overwhelming Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana and Baylor by a combined margin of 55 points. But the Wildcats gave up their fair share of buckets, as well -- 1.07 points per trip, to be exact, and 1.11 if you exclude the No. 1/No. 16 WKU matchup.

Better yet, you didn't have to be a per-possession devotee (though you should be on general principle, but that's an argument for another time) to read the final Sweet 16 score line -- Kentucky 102, Indiana 90 -- and realize how the Wildcats won that game. Hint: It wasn't defense. It was an offense that Indiana couldn't dream of stopping, an offense that never slowed down, an offense that took every punch the Hoosiers had and relentlessly countered with points on the other end. (A 35-of-37 free throw mark helped, of course, even if 14 of those free throws came during the final stretch, when Indiana was forced to foul and hope for the best.)

In other words, by now, there's no excuse to be ill-informed. Yes, Kentucky is a pretty good defensive team. A very good one, actually. But for all the love sent Davis' deserving way, and no matter how accustomed we've become to seeing Calipari teams place stifling defensive priorities above all, these Wildcats are at their best on the offensive end of the floor, where their coach has unleashed a coterie of weapons not seen in college hoops in years -- even decades.

As such, appreciate this team accordingly. Deal? Deal.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Final Four, the three teams that stand between Kentucky and a national title are all better than the Wildcats on the defensive end. It's true. Louisville ranks No. 1 in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings. Ohio State ranks No. 2. Kansas ranks No. 4. The Cardinals and Jayhawks are similar in statistical makeup; they derive much of their defensive excellence from their ability to prevent quality shots in the first place. (Kentucky likewise belongs to this group.) The Buckeyes are slightly different: They're good at everything on the defensive end, but especially gifted, as the country's No. 2-ranked defensive rebounding team, at limiting opponents to singular scoring chances with little hope of extended possessions or quick putbacks.

This brilliance has extended, or (especially in Louisville's case) even heightened, in the tournament. The Buckeyes allowed just 0.97 points per trip on their way to New Orleans. Kansas allowed just 0.90. (Don't let Sunday's high-octane win over Carolina fool you. That game was played at a high-octane, 71-possession rate, but KU's defense stood up.) And, but for one 20-minute period against Florida, the Cardinals were lights-out, holding No. 1-seeded Michigan State to 0.73 points per trip and arriving at the Final Four with a 0.93 mark that would have been even better had Pitino switched out of his suddenly ineffective zone against mentee Billy Donovan even earlier.

As an average, these three teams allowed a combined 0.93 points per trip in the NCAA tournament. Whatever happens on Saturday, expect this: Everybody is going to guard.

Kentucky's path to a national title -- gilded as it rightfully seems, given how great this team has been -- will have to wind through two of the nation's top three (or four) defenses before it reaches its conclusion.

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