For better or worse, this Kentucky team is going to be remembered for a long time.
Teams have tried and failed 38 times to defeat the Wildcats. Some have come closer than others, even reaching overtime in two games. We took a look at every one of those games and measured the correlation between margin of victory and every stat we could think of to figure out what helps against Kentucky, and what gets you West Virginia’d.
We’re operating here under a huge assumption: that a closer margin of victory means that opponent was closer to winning. It’s logical, but still has to be noted, as Kentucky has had a track record of waking up late in the second half and going on massive runs.
Kentucky’s four single-digit victories since January were ended with 7-2, 9-3, 16-2 and 15-7 runs by the Wildcats. While it may have looked close, John Calipari’s squad was a sleeping giant.
First off, let’s be clear, there is no magic bullet. There is no “Wisconsin just needs to do X or shut down Y to beat Kentucky.” Kentucky is undefeated, you don’t get there by having a thermal exhaust port for the underdog to shoot into. The Badgers simply need to be superbly efficient.
The single biggest inverse correlation we found to Kentucky’s margin of victory wasn’t opponent scoring, it was opponent points per possession. That’s good for Wisconsin, as it is by far the best in the country at that statistic.
Even more encouraging is that Notre Dame, the team which has come closest to bringing down the Wildcats, is No. 2 in the country in PPP. That isn’t even to mention before the Irish, Kentucky hadn’t played a single team in the statistic’s Top 25. The Badgers are the best equipped team in the country to punch Kentucky in the mouth early like Notre Dame and keep it going, unlike the Irish in the Elite Eight.
That’s not the only reason UW is equipped either.
The great frustration of Wisconsin in recent history, its magnet for criticism and the undesired flag it carries for college basketball could well be its greatest asset in pulling the upset of the century, at least for the program.
Let’s talk about pace of play.
Wisconsin plays “slowly.” It is No. 2 out of 351 NCAA Division I teams in average possession length and has held that identity since before Bo Ryan reached Madison.
When a team plays slowly, it lowers the number of possessions in the game and the chances to score on offense and stop on defense for both teams. Think of every possession as a point of data in a sample. Any statistics class will tell you lower sample size increases variance, which is good for bad teams and bad for good teams.
By playing slowly, Wisconsin statistically increases the chances of an upset, whether they’re the favorite or the underdog. In this case, they are most definitely the underdog.
We’ve seen teams try to run up and down the court and create extra possessions against these Wildcats, and it hasn’t worked (see: West Virginia). In fact, in Kentucky’s 10 non-overtime games with the highest number of possessions, they’ve won by an average of 33.6 points.
In their 10 games with the fewest possessions, they’ve won by “just” 14.2 points.
While we’re on the topic of slowing down the game, let’s talk shot selection. Everyone knows that 3-pointers are worth extra points, but in the long run, that truth might not hold up.
Consider this: Wisconsin has made 36.4 percent of its 3-point attempts this season. That means that, in the long run, each 3-point shot they attempt is worth about 1.09 points.
On the flipside, they’ve made 55.2 percent of their 2-point shots. Multiply that out and each of their 2-point attempts is worth just over 1.1 points. So, while 3-pointers are worth more points overall, 2-point attempts are worth more than 3-point attempts for Wisconsin. That’s why taking too many threes can be a dangerous game—just ask Villanova. The numbers back up that logic, too: The more threes a team took against Kentucky, the more they lost by.
Much has been made this season of Kentucky’s depth. It’s simply ridiculous. They have nine guys averaging between 17 and 26 minutes, and no one averages more than that. For comparison, Wisconsin has two guys (Duje Dukan and Traevon Jackson) in that range, and all five of its starters average more.
This depth has really been the key to the Wildcats’ success so far. They just come at you from so many different angles that it becomes impossible to defend. Sometimes, however, they can lean a little heavily on one player, and that’s when they’re weak.
The percentage of Kentucky’s total points that are scored by one player inversely correlates to margin of victory with a significantly high r-value of .5. If you can make them rely on a single player throughout the course of a game instead of their entire stable of elite athletes, the numbers say they can become vulnerable.
When they do make full use of that stable and its length, with the largest average height in the country, they become scary.
The biggest positive correlation we found to margin of victory for Kentucky, even more than points, was total rebounding, which shows their way to blowing lesser opponents out comes from receiving the lion’s share of offensive opportunities.
That length also means they block a ridiculous amount of shots. It’s the backbone to their defense, which holds their opponents to the lowest field-goal percentage in the country. The number of blocks strongly correlate to their margin of victory, so Kaminsky, Dekker and Hayes are going to need to be ready to shoot from the outside.
Kentucky has become the juggernaut by rebounding and defending inside. Data shows the team that will come close to beating them is efficient on offense, slows down the game and can mitigate the Wildcats’ interior dominance. That team can be the Badgers, and if it happens, they will be remembered for a long time.