How Historically Great is This Year’s Kentucky Team?Posted by EJacoby on February 27th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
Last week included much debate about some of the all-time great teams in college basketball. First, we released our RTC Mount Rushmore of the most significant people in NCAA basketball history, which featured discussion about the leaders of several great programs. Then, CBSSports.com released their ballots ranking the 16 greatest teams in college history, followed by our own Joshua Weill highlighting Rodrick Rhodes and his (lack of) impact on the 1996 Kentucky ‘Untouchables,’ the team ranked third all-time by CBS. Meanwhile, this year’s Kentucky Wildcats won another impressive conference road game over Mississippi State and outlasted Vanderbilt on Saturday to improve its record to 28-1 overall and 14-0 in SEC play. All of this got us to thinking: How historically great is this year’s Kentucky squad compared to some of its contemporaries? Let’s take a look at how John Calipari’s team matches up to some dominant modern teams.
If it weren’t for Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating three on December 10, Kentucky would be 28-0 right now and in the discussion to go undefeated. Instead, Indiana got the win that day and quieted the Wildcats’ buzz for an extended period. Forward Terrence Jones had just four points, one rebound, and six turnovers in that game, concerning many fans that the team could not reach its potential without its go-to offensive guy playing at his highest level. But since that game, UK has cruised in its 14 conference games and Jones has been just fine, averaging 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds in SEC play. Those numbers are way down from last season and far from the dominance we all expected, but with five other stars on the team this hasn’t been an issue. Shooting 49.6% with just 1.8 turnovers per game, Jones has been quite alright.
The rest of this Kentucky lineup is filled with pros at every position. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller all average double-figure scoring on the season, while freshman point guard Marquis Teague is at 9.6 points and 4.7 assists per game on the year. The three freshmen — Davis, Gilchrist, and Teague — are all projected NBA lottery picks according to DraftExpress.com, while sophomores Jones and Lamb are expected to be selected in the first round as well whenever they declare. The senior leader Miller may very well find his way onto an NBA roster too, as he is currently a top 25 available senior as ranked by DraftExpress.
This collection of talent may not be able to match the total of nine pros harbored by the 1996 ‘Untouchables’ group, even if freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer eventually develops into a seventh pro from this team. But if we’re talking quality over quantity, it’s hard to argue with what this year’s squad has to offer. Davis is expected to be a near-lock for the #1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft if he declares, while Kidd-Gilchrist is a certain Top 10 guy that could go as high as the top three. The ‘Untouchables’ had Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, and Antoine Walker all get selected as lottery picks in 1996, but none higher than sixth overall. On this year’s team, Jones and Teague have a very good chance to be lottery picks, with Doron Lamb having an outside shot as well. These Wildcats may very well end up sending four lottery picks to the league, all with a chance to make a major impact. The ’96 team produced a total of three NBA All-Star Game appearances, a number that the 2012 squad could easily surpass.
But greatness at the college level is not all about NBA talent by any means. Looking at their production during this season, Kentucky is listed as the nation’s third-best offense and eighth-best defense by Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings. Kentucky’s overall weighted efficiency, or expected winning percentage, is listed at .9699, the highest in the nation. While KenPom’s numbers don’t stretch back to 1996, we have data from the past decade to compare. Looking at this database, Kentucky doesn’t stand out as a clearly dominant team. In fact, a total of 13 other teams from the past decade have an expected winning percentage greater than or equal to this UK team. Even last year’s Ohio State team had a greater number, which is a predictive metric based on the likelihood of teams winning games.
Nonetheless, Pomeroy is not the only one who decides how great teams are when compared to one another. Scoring margin is a universally accepted indicator of greatness at both the NCAA and professional basketball levels. On the season, the 2011-12 Wildcats sport an average scoring margin of +19.0, a full +1.2 points higher than the next best team this season. This 19.0 margin is the seventh-highest number of any team in 14 years, stretching back to 1998, the earliest year that we can find quick, reliable data for. The Duke Blue Devils of 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2002 represent four of those higher scoring margins (and it’s instructive to note that only the 2001 Duke team won it all). We know that Duke has been dominant in the past 15 years, but their consistent average margins of 20.0+ for several seasons are incredible and will be worth further investigating, but that’s for another time and place. Regardless, this year’s Kentucky team is thus far the most dominant team by point differential of the past 14 years outside of a handful of crazy Coach K squads and a couple of outliers (Auburn and TCU).
This is all only a brief start to the conversation about how great this Kentucky team is. We have 15 years worth of scoring margin data, predictive Pomeroy numbers from the past decade, and NBA talent comparisons from any season, but there’s much more work to be done. We have no idea how this season will play out for the Wildcats, let alone how their current players will fare at the NBA level. More data must be collected from the SEC and NCAA Tournaments before UK can stake its claim among the greatest teams in modern history. For now, they’re just the number one team in the country this season and a presumptive National Title favorite. But even John Calipari knows that his team is susceptible to a loss at any time, and it must play its best ball of the season at the right time in March to even get into the conversation of all-time great teams. If Kentucky does somehow win out and wind up in the Final Four or as National Champions with one or two total losses, it will then be time to revisit and legitimately ask if this is one of the all-time great modern college basketball teams.