What Are Kentucky's Chances?

22 March, 1996

They have the sleek new uniforms, the high profile coach, one of the most talented rosters in the history of college basketball, and -- the clincher -- Dick Vitale touting them as the number one team in the nation. The hype is enormous. They have to win. They are 7-5 favorites in a single elimination tournament of 64 teams, for Smith's sake. But will Kentucky really live up to all the hype?

Kentucky has been favored at least twice in the past four seasons to win the NCAA's and they have failed both times, once in the Final Four in 1993 and once in the round of eight in 1995. Neither time were they as heavy favorites as they are this time around, though they arguably had better starting lineups, which usually is a much bigger factor than the bench. What are the reasons Kentucky failed before and why are they so heavily favored this year?

ESPN's report suggested that Kentucky failed in previous years in games that were low scoring. This is only partially true; they were relatively low scoring for Kentucky, but not for college basketball. It is also easy to say that the best way to beat Kentucky is to slow the game down (something that can be shown to be true), but it's another thing to do it. Kentucky forces a fast pace with their pressure....unless they cannot score, in which case, they cannot pressure as much. And when are they less likely to score? When the opposition has a good defense and when the opposition doesn't give them easy scores off turnovers. These are keys to beating Kentucky.

Unlike many good teams, beating Kentucky doesn't come down to controlling one or two players. It comes down to beating the Pitino system. That is why Kentucky is such a high profile team and that is why Pitino makes so much money. His team is built around the coach and a system. When Kentucky takes on an opponent, the promo's don't say "Tony Delk leads his team into...", like they do for Marcus Camby and UMass. When promo's are done for Kentucky, they say "See Rick Pitino take his top-rated Kentucky Wildcats..." Pitino is a star unlike any coach in the history of basketball, with the possible exception of Larry Brown. He draws fans to games more than his players do, almost entirely because of his system, which really works.

Beating the Pitino system is easy in theory, difficult in practice. First of all, the offense is nothing sophisticated -- it's main characteristic is its simple aggressiveness, summed up in one rule: if open in range, then shoot. The offense actually gets a lot of help from the defense, which is the Pitino trademark. All defenses have obvious weaknesses and Kentucky's is no different. Pressure defense in general can be burned by going to the basket when a defender turns his head or gets too close. Double teams can be beat with good spacing and early recognition. Any defense Kentucky uses leaves open shots, some of which are passed up in the name of controlling tempo. But a team that consistently buries those open shots burns Kentucky. Rick Pitino knows it and continues to give this away, but he also knows that most teams are just too intimidated by the energy of the defense to do it.

Generally, pressure defense like Kentucky's is a high risk strategy, which is why it is used by teams that are on the losing end of the scoreboard with limited time left (witness the Texas Tech-Georgetown game, where the last minute and a half of game time took 25 minutes of real time). The press has a chance of bringing you back from a near hopeless situation, but it also has a chance to make you lose when you are a tremendous favorite to win. If just one of the remaining three teams that Kentucky has to play turns this high risk strategy against the 'Cats, these heavy favorites become also-rans again.

However, Kentucky's pressure defense is more difficult to beat than most presses because it almost always has fresh legs executing it. This is why Kentucky's depth is so important, more important than it is to any other team in the tournament. The Wildcats win because they have the depth to play their style all game long. In fact, it is probably to their advantage to stick with the extensive substitution pattern even if they are behind and there appears to be some urgency to get the better starters in the game.

Given the Pitino system weaknesses, there are still only a few potential NCAA opponents that can take advantage of them. The one that stands out as having the best chance to beat them is Georgetown. This is not because the Hoyas are the second best team in the land, but because Georgetown has a very good team that can also be great. It can also be bad, which is why they don't have the greatest record coming in to the tournament.

The others with chances:

(Note on 3/24/96: Mississippi St. definitely has a chance of beating Kentucky since they have done it once, play the defense it takes, and have the guards. Their chances are probably just a little worse than those of UMass, though it's tempting to say otherwise. I was just surprised they got by UConn and Cincinnati.... On the other hand, Syracuse really shouldn't have a chance against Kentucky.)

The numbers behind this are not as convincing as they should be. Kentucky has won at several different tempos this season, slow games against the likes of Mississipi St. (70 possessions) and fast games against the likes of LSU (103 possessions) and Maryland (89 possessions). In the two games that Kentucky lost, the paces were very average for them, 82 in the UMass loss and 77 in the Mississippi St. loss (the Kentucky average was 80). By getting out to tremendous leads early on, Kentucky let up a lot in the second halves of games. This led to a positive correlation between their offensive and defensive ratings, something that doesn't happen in the first half of their games when their pressure is full force. The estimated standard deviation of the team's rating difference (the difference between their offensive and defensive ratings in games) is still rather large, however, at 19. Given that their average rating difference was 29 (indicating that they were, on average, 29 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents), this standard deviation indicates that 84% of the time, they won by between 10 and 48 points. That doesn't leave much room to beat them.

The two teams with the best chance of beating Kentucky are Georgetown and UMass. Georgetown's numbers do support their hopes as an underdog vs. Kentucky, with an estimated standard deviation in their rating difference (gotta come up with a shorter name for this thing) of 26. Specifically, Georgetown had a negative correlation between their offense and defense, which on the court means that they turned defense into offense pretty well. They also fluctuated from game to game substantially, being highly inconsistent. The fact that they have survived to their regional finals means they have survived the bad part of being inconsistent. Now they have to use the good part of being inconsistent to beat both UMass and Kentucky. And, oh yeah, they would then have to actually win in the Finals.

The chances of UMass are primarily enhanced by the fact that they have beaten Kentucky once. Their game numbers are not as good as Kentucky's, being more consistent from game to game, but not letting up as much as Kentucky does -- primarily because their games were closer. Fortunately for Kentucky, the most likely situation is that UMass beats Georgetown then loses to Kentucky. But UMass has at least a 30-35% chance of beating the 'Cats. Georgetown is up around 35-40%.

Perhaps everyone figured that Kentucky's chances to get to the Final Four were 100%, which, as of 3/22, they still are not. In this case, it is reasonable to achieve the 7-5 odds that they were getting.

A Final Comment on Tournament Odds

It is interesting that the two most watched sporting events (in America), the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament, are also the two most heavily betted sporting events. What is cause and effect here? Do people watch because they have bets riding or do they bet because they know people are watching?

With such heavy betting on these two games, the final odds (or point spread in football) should be a good reflection of true odds, that is, odds that reflect the national intelligence. It would be interesting to find out whether the national intelligence is unbiased by seeing whether the odds really work out close to what has been observed. If so, then that's saying something about American smarts, now isn't it? We can't understand why crime hampers many parts of America, but we know whether the Cowboys can beat the Steelers and by how much!