Friday, April 04, 2014

Final Four Open Thread + Picking The Lines

Any time there's a major sporting event, the nation's sports media descends on it, and everybody is looking for something to write about. That's a formula for a lot of #narrative, and this year's Final Four is no different. And there's no team oozing with more narrative than Kentucky.

What's the Kentucky narrative? That this team ranked #1 in the nation preseason just didn't work well together. They were selfish, they weren't having fun, and they had no confidence. The result was a team that barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament and was left for dead by the media, only to come together as a team and find themselves and start playing like the #1 team in the nation that their raw talent should have made them earlier.

The problem with this narrative? It's all wrong. All of it. First of all, Kentucky was never a bad team. Yeah, they had that horrible loss to South Carolina. But they were also 2-8 in games decided by six points or less prior to the tip off of the NCAA Tournament. They spent nearly the entire season in the Top 20 in the computers, and they entered the NCAA Tournament 17th in the Pomeroy ratings and 18th in the Sagarin PREDICTOR. And you can read me talking repeatedly about how underrated Kentucky was and how their bad luck in close games was going to make them an incredibly dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament (here and here, for example).

What about the second part of that narrative? Is Kentucky playing like the #1 team in the country now? No, that's wrong also. Let's be honest, just as Kentucky was unlucky in close games in the regular season, they have been lucky in close games in the tourney (all four games have been decided by seven points or less). And if you dig deeper their performances get even more fluke. Kansas State was an ugly 5-for-21 on threes but still covered the spread by a point. Then Louisville hit four shots outside the paint in the entire game, just horribly ice cold. And the Michigan game? Kentucky's 33% three-point shooters went 7-for-11 as a team, and I think just about every neutral agreed that Kentucky got very favorable treatment from the refs. The three cheap fouls on Jordan Morgan (including one where Julius Randle dropped his shoulder and clearly committed a charge) turned the game around by removing Michigan's one real big guy and competent rebounder. It seemed pretty clear to me that Michigan outplayed Kentucky in that game.

So what is Kentucky then? They're basically what they've been all season long. They're a very good team. They're playing a little bit better later on in the season, but their performance en route to the Final Four certainly hasn't been as impressive as Florida or Wisconsin, as Luke Winn detailed here. Can they beat Wisconsin and then win the title? Of course they can. But that's been true all season long. They were never not good.

Alright. Enough #narrative rants. Let's talk about the actual Final Four match-ups:

Elite 8 Day 2 ATS: 1-1-0
2014 Tournament ATS: 37-23-4
2013 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3

UConn (+6.5) over Florida: Florida is the better team, but this spread is a bit large. What stands out to me about this game is that these teams are awfully similar to each other in style. UConn has more shot blockers and a more imposing front line, but both of these teams have dominant two-point defenses, while not being particularly great at three-point defense. Neither of these teams is a dominant rebounding team, though neither is a bad rebounding team either. Both of these teams shoot a lot of threes and are decent, but not lights out and not particularly different from each other. To me, that all adds up to a game that's going to be a jump shooting contest. If Florida is hot and UConn is cold then the Gators will roll and cover the spread. But if Florida goes cold and UConn gets hot? The Huskies can win this game outright. In games like this, I always recommend just taking the points and hoping for a game that comes down to the final possession.

Wisconsin (+1.5) over Kentucky: That rant at the top of this post suggests, in short, to fade the public. The media and the public have bought hook line and sinker into the Kentucky narrative, but as I detailed above, there's just nothing to it. The dispassionate computer ratings, from Pomeroy to Sagarin to Nate Silver, all rate Wisconsin as the narrow favorite. But those ratings don't take the individual match-ups into account. How do these two teams match up? Defensively, Wisconsin is a nightmare for Kentucky, I think. The Wildcats depend heavily on offensive put backs and free throws (they also combine the two, as they're good at rebounding their own missed free throws). But Wisconsin is 3rd in the nation in defensive FTRate and 13th in defensive rebounding rate. If Frank Kaminsky gets in foul trouble then Wisconsin's front line gets small and rebounding can become an issue, but the Badgers aren't nearly as dependent on any one player there as Michigan is with Jordan Morgan. Kentucky rolled Michigan for a 63% offensive rebounding percentage. The best any team did against this season against Wisconsin was Illinois landing 45.5% against Wisconsin in a January 8th blowout, where a lot of the damage was done against Wisconsin's bench (Kaminsky played only 20 minutes, for example).

What about the other side of the ball? If Willie Cauley-Stein can go, Kentucky does pose a tough defensive match-up for Wisconsin. Cauley-Stein is the one Kentucky big who can defend Kaminsky all over the court, and Kentucky has the type of long, athletic man-to-man defense that limits threes and will give Wisconsin's backcourt trouble. But Cauley-Stein is unlikely to play, and I think Kentucky is going to struggle too much to score without the easy putbacks and free throws. In my opinion, the match-ups favor Wisconsin here. Take the Badgers and the points.

1 comment:

Daniel Tappa said...

I think your assessment of Wisconsin vs kentucky is spot on. This is not a favorable matchup for Kentucky. If Kentucky's 3pt shooting regresses to the mean I think wisconsin wins by double digits, but if they continue to shoot lights out it'll be close.