Sunday, January 22, 2012

UK Wildcats Riding High Again

With Kentucky's win Saturday against Alabama, combined with Notre Dame's defeat of top-ranked Syracuse, Kentucky will undoubtedly rise to #1 in the nation on Monday, for their second stint there this season.

I haven't been doing many UK-themed blog posts this season, but don't think that means I haven't been following the team very closely.  In fact, I actually attended my first UK game this year.  (Yes, I know that's hard to believe, being that I was born in Lexington, raised in Louisville as a UK fan, then lived in the Lexington area for the first 15 years of my adulthood, but I simply never had the inclination to spring for tickets and fight the crowds.)  I saw the highly-touted UK/UNC game in December that UK won after blocking a last second 10-footer that would have won the game for UNC.  It was definitely a great first experience.

In any case, Kentucky started the year ranked #2 in the nation, jumped to #1 for two weeks after top-ranked UNC lost, then fell back to #3 for several weeks following a loss to IU, before returning to the #2 spot, where they will remain until Monday's new rankings come out.

I know I could easily be accused of bias when it comes to evaluating the college basketball world, but I can't help but feel like UK is not getting entirely fair treatment this season from the analysts and mouthpieces on ESPN and other media outlets.  Now don't get me wrong: Kentucky gets plenty of press, much of it positive, and there are certainly analysts out there (Dick Vitale comes to mind) who absolutely gush over UK (of course, Vitale gushes over everyone), but I can't help but feel like Kentucky is, in many ways, getting a raw deal by a lot of the more notable college basketball analysts.

A perfect example is live on ESPN's site right now - a video blog between Andy Katz and Doug Gottlieb about Saturday's events.  It is titled "Gottlieb's new No. 1 -- it's not UK."  In it, Gottlieb states that he would choose current #6 Ohio State to be the new #1 after the loss by Syracuse.  He essentially writes off OSU's three losses by chalking them up to "tough road games."  He is not, apparently, willing to write off UK's one loss as a "tough road game," even though it was to one of the very same "tough teams" that OSU lost to on the road.  Basically, it's a ridiculous argument.  Gottlieb, apparently, simply doesn't want to give UK the respect it deserves as a team who is 19-1, with their only loss coming to a highly ranked Indiana team at Indiana, and that loss only coming on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give IU a 1-point victory, along with three other signature wins against ranked teams, one of which was not a home game (UK beat Kansas at Madison Square Garden).  They've also started off 5-0 in SEC play - the only unbeaten SEC team.  In fact, the only other team in a major conference who is still unbeaten in conference play is Kansas.

The same sort of general disregard seemed true last year too.  For instance, Kentucky reached the Final Four last year, but not a single ESPN analyst had picked them to do so.  Kentucky also received what was, in my opinion, a scandalously low seeding in the NCAA tournament (they were a 4 seed).  Three teams who were ranked lower than UK got higher seedings by the NCAA selection committee, including Florida, who had just been blown-out in the SEC championship game by UK!

In any case, I think UK is even better than many people think this year.  Syracuse seems overrated to me.  Prior to conference play, they only played one true road game - and while that is true of Kentucky as well, Kentucky's one true road game was against a quality, ranked opponent in IU; Syracuse played a tepid NC State team who has lost at home four times this year.  Since starting conference play, Syracuse has played on the road three times (before Saturday), and those three teams are among the five worst teams in the Big East.  Saturday's game at Notre Dame was literally Syracuse's first legitimate road test all season (Notre Dame's record isn't stellar - 11-8 coming in - but they've played 7 [seven!] ranked teams prior to this match-up with Syracuse, so they've been toughened), and the 'Cuse got beat down by 10 points, never had the lead in the entire game, and were down by as much as 18 at one point.

As for Kentucky, I think they get underrated a bit because many of the analysts don't give fair treatment to the SEC as a whole.  Up until last week, Kentucky had been getting one first place vote every week in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll - the other 30 votes had all been going to Syracuse.  Some voter out there thought Kentucky deserved to be #1.  But after Kentucky struggled at Auburn, and only won at Tennessee by a few points, that voter abandoned Kentucky this week, and all 31 votes in the poll went to Syracuse.  Clearly, even though Kentucky won those games (and they ended up winning the Auburn game by double digits, after struggling early), and even though both games were on the road, whoever that voter was clearly believed SEC competition is so weak that Kentucky should have blown both those teams out by 30 points.  Since they didn't do that, this voter switched.

My point in spelling all this out is that I think SEC competition is undervalued.  I think people see these SEC schools like Auburn and South Carolina and Arkansas and Ole Miss, who haven't been any good in decades, and who are primarily football schools, and they assume that when a team like Kentucky plays them, they don't really "count" very much towards respect or legitimacy.  This is largely based, of course, on the RPI system.  Without going into too much detail, the RPI system is a convoluted mathematical formula that attempts to determine how good a team is based on their winning percentage, the winning percentages of the teams they have played, and the winning percentages of the teams their opponents have played.  As such, it changes with every game a team plays.  It does not take into consideration a team's stats (shooting percentage, points per game, etc.), nor does it consider margins of victory or loss - a 1 point victory or loss is the same as a 30 point victory or loss.  It also does not evaluate how one team's strengths and weaknesses will match up with another team's strengths and weaknesses.

With the RPI system, Kentucky frequently gets a low strength of schedule rating, because many of the teams it faces in the SEC have poor winning percentages.  As a result, its RPI is frequently lower than a lot of other major teams.  This year for instance (as of Friday), Kentucky's RPI was only 7, even though they are ranked second in the nation.  That means six other teams are, by this mathematical formula, "better" than Kentucky (this year, one of those teams is Seton Hall, who isn't even ranked, and another of those teams is Kansas, who Kentucky beat).

Because of the prominence of the RPI in ranking and analyzing teams, many of Kentucky's games in the SEC are undervalued, in my opinion - which ultimately leads to Kentucky getting at least somewhat undervalued or underrated.  The reason for this is because the RPI not only doesn't take into consideration margins of victory or a team's personal stats, but it also cannot evaluate subjective things like rivalry games.
As anyone familiar with sports knows, a heated rivalry can frequently produce very good games, and very close games, even when one of the teams is having an "off" season.  For instance, Kentucky has a very heated and long-standing rivalry with Louisville - and regardless of where they happen to be ranked in a given season, or what their winning percentage happens to be in a given season, you can never be sure who is going to win that game.

Additionally, the RPI cannot take into consideration how easy or difficult a given team is to beat on their own court.  For instance, it is widely accepted that Kansas's Allen Fieldhouse is one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball.  Currently, Kansas has won 85 of its last 86 games there.  There are, of course, a number of others (including Kentucky's Rupp Arena).  So a team might have a poor RPI, and be a very average team, but be difficult to beat on their home court.

Finally, the RPI cannot evaluate the intensity of play in a given conference.  There is no question that some conferences are more competitive than others.  And by "more competitive," I don't mean "more teams with high winning percentages."  I'm talking about intensity of competition and expectation.  The Ohio Valley Conference, for instance, could hardly be considered a "highly intense" conference, regardless of how good or bad its teams might be.  The Big 10, however, is an incredibly intense conference, with many heated rivalries and very high expectations among its fan base - and again, that comes regardless of how "good" the conference is.

All of these things play a role in undervaluing the SEC and Kentucky, in my opinion.  The SEC is a very intense conference.  It's an old conference made up of teams who have been playing each other on a very regular basis for decades.  There are numerous old rivalries throughout the conference.  In fact, it could be fair to say that virtually every game played in the SEC is a "rivalry" game.  This increases the level of competition dramatically.  There are also many difficult courts to win on in the SEC, most notably Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Kentucky.  Finally, SEC fans tend to be rabid and tend to have very high expectations for their schools, even those schools whose programs tend to be weak - this, too, plays a role in the overall difficulty of SEC play.

There is also one more factor to be considered, and it's probably the most important.  Kentucky is the undisputed king of the SEC.  With the exception of Vanderbilt, Kentucky is the only "basketball" school in the conference: all the others are primarily known as football schools.  Kentucky has won more SEC regular season titles, more SEC championship titles, more Final Fours, and more National Championships, than all the other schools combined.    In SEC championships, Kentucky has won 27; the next closest are Alabama with 6, and Tennessee with 4, and neither of those teams has won an SEC championship in more than 20 years.

All this is to say that when Kentucky plays games in the SEC, they play with a target on their backs, every game, every year.  Kentucky is the "signature win" that every single SEC team wants to get.  The good teams, like Florida and Vandy and Tennessee, want to beat them to increase their seeding in the NCAA tournament; poorer teams,  like Arkansas and Ole Miss and Georgia, want to beat them to increase their chances of making the NCAA tournament.  Every team wants to beat them for general bragging rights.  With the possible exception of Kansas in the Big 12, there is no other team in the college basketball world that plays under these kinds of "targeted" conditions in conference play.

Put simply, Kentucky gets the best of every team they play, especially in the SEC.  

A perfect case in point is the game Kentucky won Saturday against Alabama.  I heard more than one analyst say that Alabama played its best basketball of the season during the second half of the game.  Kentucky still won, but they got the best Alabama had to give them.  This is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Kentucky games in the SEC.

Because of the inability of the RPI to evaluate subjective things like rivalries, tough road courts, and conference intensity, and especially because of Kentucky's somewhat unique place in college basketball as a team who gets the very best out of every team who plays them, I think Kentucky sometimes gets overlooked by analysts who don't take any of those subjective things into consideration.

The fact is, biased though I may be, I think Kentucky is the best team in the nation this year, with nowhere to go but up.  I think they are better than Syracuse.  I think they are better than Ohio State.  I think they are better than Baylor and Duke and UNC.  If they haven't blown out every opponent, and if they've played some close contests with teams with sub-par records, it's only because Kentucky plays all of its games, every year, with an enormous target on its back, they play numerous rivalry games, and they seem to always get the best that any SEC team - no matter how good or bad - can throw at them.  

I'm picking Kentucky to win its 8th National Championship this year.  They have the talent, they have the intensity, and they are very quickly gaining the experience they will need through tough SEC match-ups and hard-fought battles in close games.  Winning every game by 20 points is a sure path to finding yourself without a clue what to do when it comes time for the scrappy, high intensity games of the NCAA tournament.  Syracuse, this year, had never been down by more than 8 points in a game, had never trailed at halftime, and had an average margin of victory close to 20 points.  Their only close game was a 4-point victory at home over Florida in December - Florida, the only ranked team they have played all season.  On Saturday, they found themselves in a tough road match with a battle-hardened team, they found themselves on the bottom looking up, and they did not know how to respond.

Kentucky isn't going to have that problem, thanks to the toughness of the games they play in the SEC.  This, I predict, will help propel them to a National Championship on April 2 in New Orleans.    


BC said...

This is inspired writing and "truth telling". You should consider forwarding it to ESPN!

Scott said...

I doubt they'd care :)

The easiest argument against this post is simple: How can the team who is unanimously ranked #1 in the nation be "underrated" or "undervalued"?