Over the last two weeks we’ve seen 64 NCAA Tournament teams get eliminated from the field, leaving only the Final Four remaining with a chance to cut down the nets in New Orleans next Monday.
College hoops statistical guru Ken Pomeroy breaks down the four teams chances to win the title as follows: Kentucky 42%, Ohio State 34%, Kansas 17% and Louisville 7%. From my perspective, if John Calipari’s Wildcats play as well next weekend as they did this past weekend, that 42% chance of a title looks pretty darn low.
That being said, it’s going to be very hard for Kentucky to match their near flawless offensive performances in wins over Baylor and Indiana. The Wildcats have scored a ridiculous 220 points in their last 163 possessions; a 1.35 points per possession ratio. Those are not sustainable numbers, even for a team that closed out the weekend ranked #2 in the country (behind only Missouri) with 1.17 points per possession average.
Both Final Four games are rematches of non-conference affairs from earlier in the season. The talking heads on TV are sure to bring up this angle ad nauseum, but the bottom line is that neither affair had a final score that reflected how the game was played, and there were significant mitigating circumstances that makes the games themselves useful for a Final Four handicap only when we consider the fact that there is some level of familiarity between the teams.
Louisville and Kentucky met on New Year’s Eve – arguably the most “distracted” night of the entire season – at Rupp Arena which is not exactly a neutral venue. Kentucky dominated most of the first half, leading 31-16 after 15 minutes of play, but the Cardinals closed out the half on a 17-5 run to cut the gap to three.
It was just as zany in the second half, when Kentucky gradually pulled away once again, leading 69-56 with 10 seconds remaining before one of the worst pointspread beats of the entire season. Louisville’s Russ Smith hit a three pointer with five seconds left, followed by a steal and another Russ Smith three pointer at the buzzer, leaving Wildcat backers stunned with the 69-62 final as 9.5-point chalk. The game itself was a brickfest, with both squads held under 33% shooting.
Ohio State faced Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse – again, not exactly a neutral site venue – back on December 10th. At the time, the Buckeyes were 8-0, including a seven-point win over Florida and a 22-point blowout over Duke, both at home. Meanwhile Kansas had already lost ‘step-up’ games on neutral floors against Kentucky (at Madison Square Garden in the ‘State Farm Champions Classic’) and against Duke in the Maui Invitational.
It was the Buckeyes first road game of the season, and they were without their leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker Jared Sullinger. Sullinger was suffering from back spasms, not announced as ‘out’ until the hours before the game. The betting markets, not surprisingly, went nuts, driving the Buckeyes from 3.5-point favorites to 2-point underdogs.
Kansas shot lights out, taking advantage of Sullinger’s absence, hitting 19-of-31 from two point range and 9-of-17 from three-point land. Ohio State finished on the other end of the shooting spectrum, hitting less than 39% for the game; 29% from downtown. The Jayhawks raced out to an early ten point lead, but Ohio State cut it to six at the half.
The second half again featured a brief Kansas run-out, with the Jayhawks leading by as many as twelve, but the Buckeyes hung tough, cutting the lead to four with less than six minutes to play – a gutty, gritty effort without their best player in their first road game on an afternoon where the decibel level reached 114 – rock concert loud. But Kansas pulled away late when Ohio State hit only one basket in the final four minutes, eventually winning by 11.
When we look at NBA caliber talent for the coming weekend, Kentucky stands out. Anthony Davis is the projected #1 overall pick. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague are all projected first rounders, if they come out. And the Wildcats certainly have an impeccable resume. They were the #1 overall seed in the tournament and are the only #1 seed still standing. Their only losses all year came on a buzzer beating three-pointer in their first road game at Indiana, and in the SEC Conference Tournament, playing their third game in three days against a Vanderbilt team that had hung tough with them twice in the previous month.
Kentucky ranks #1 in the country in defensive field goal percentage allowed to go along with their #2 points per possession ranking (out of 345 D-1A teams). It is worth noting, however that Pomerey’s adjusted defensive efficiency numbers show the Wildcats as the single weakest defensive team out of the four teams playing next Saturday.
It’s also worth noting that we haven’t seen a Final Four favorite of -9 or higher (like the Wildcats are against Louisville) since 1999 when Duke failed to cover as 11-point chalk in their six point win over Michigan State. Nor should we forget that Kentucky is the only team of the Final Four with a freshman point guard – Marquis Teague had more turnovers than assists in their Elite Eight victory over Baylor.
Louisville is here because of defense, and defense only. The numbers don’t lie. Louisville ranks #2 in the nation in defensive field goal percentage allowed. They have the length and athleticism on the wing to shut down Kentucky’s three point shooters, just as they did in the first meeting when they held the Wildcats under 30% from the floor, including a 3-of-16 performance from beyond the arc: #18 in the country defending the three point line. Louisville ranks #28 in the nation in blocked shots. And their defensive pressure has them #7 in the nation in steals. That type of defense makes it very difficult to beat Rick Pitino’s team by margin – hence the Cardinals' impressive 8-3 ATS mark as an underdog this year.
Louisville opened the season with 12 straight wins, but Pitino’s squad battled the injury bug and a brutal Big East schedule, losing four out of five to open conference play. They slumped down the stretch, losing four out of six heading into the Big East tournament. Those struggles give some pointspread value with the Cardinals now, despite their current 8-0 SU and ATS run over the past three weeks. Much like national champion UConn did last year, Louisville gutted its way to a Big East Tournament title and have carried that momentum forward into the Big Dance.
From an “opponents faced” perspective, Kansas has enjoyed the easiest path to the Final Four, beating a 15 seed, a 10 seed, an 11 seed, and a team playing without their star point guard. Despite that relatively easy slate, Kansas is fortunate to be here. Bill Self’s team did not play well in their Round of 32 matchup against Purdue, barely gutting out a come-from behind win in the final 30 seconds thanks to a Boilermakers turnover that led to an easy fast break bucket and a one point lead.
With an eight-point lead with less than four minutes to play against ice-cold NC State, the Jayhawks suffered a complete meltdown – terrible shots, multiple turnovers, a pair of missed free throws on the front end of one-and-ones, inexcusable fouls on Wolfpack three-point shooters – the works. Instead of pulling away for the win and cover, they were lucky to escape.
As a team, the Jayhawks shot 37% in their win over NC State, including a woeful 1-14 from three point range. Against Purdue, it was 34% shooting, just 25% from beyond the arc. This is a good shooting team as we saw against North Carolina, getting high percentage looks for big men Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson in the paint. Their guards drive to the basket, and they consistently get wide open looks on the perimeter, shooting close to 48% for the full season.
The fact that they’ve been able to gut out three straight tight wins – don’t be fooled for a minute by that 13 point margin of victory over the Tar Heels – with defense and rebounding tells us very clearly that if the shooting pendulum swings back to normalcy, Kansas is going to step up with the type of impressive performance that they are capable of delivering.
Ohio State has a pretty darn good statistical profile as well. They rank in the top 10 in the country in rebounding margin; best of any team remaining thanks to their +7.9 edge on the boards per game. Pomeroy’s numbers have them ranked only behind Louisville in terms of defensive efficiency, although they are significantly weaker than Kansas on the defensive end of the court when we look at both team’s results away from home. The Buckeyes have a pair of future NBA draft picks in Jared Sullinger and William Buford. And the Big Ten was as good or better than any conference in college basketball this year – much better than the Big XII.
What the Buckeyes don’t have is depth. In their Elite Eight win over Syracuse, Thad Matta played Deshaun Thomas and Williams Buford for the full 40 minutes. Aaron Craft would have played 40 as well, but he fouled out after 39 minutes. Jared Sullinger also had foul issues against the Orange, but he played 37 minutes against Cinci in the Sweet 16. Lenzelle Smith played 35 minutes for the second consecutive game. In their two games last weekend, the Buckeyes got a grand total of 40 out of 400 possible minutes from their bench. That bench production? Ten points, six rebounds and four assists. If foul trouble rears its ugly head this weekend, the Buckeyes are probably doomed.