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Kentucky Wildcats
For a few weeks now, UK fans have been looking forward to the start of the NCAA Tournament. As UK has improved through the season, fans' expectaitons have risen accordingly. Now that the tournament is upon us, I want to take a look into how UK has performed against NCAA tournament teams this year and see if there are any insights that can help fans understand what to expect over the coming weeks. As always, I've included some one page stats profiles below: one covering UK's games against teams in the NCAA tournament, and one for the full season to date.

UK Stats Profile vs NCAA tournament teams

UK Stats Profile - Full Season to Date

This season, Kentucky played 16 games against teams who are in the NCAA Tournament. All of those games are against pretty high quality opponents, with Florida and Seton Hall the lowest seeded teams as 10-seeds. If UK is to make a run to the Final Four, this selection of teams is a pretty good representation of the quality of teams they'll have to beat. Let's take a look at the good, the bad, and the not-sure-what-to-make-of-it from UK's game against NCAA teams this year.

The good: One very positive number is Kentucky's adjusted margin per possessions against NCAA teams. This statistic adjusts for opponent strength, so you can compare games against Tennessee to games against Monmouth, for example. As the one pager shows in table B, UK's adjusted margin was +0.28 points per possession against NCAA teams; it was the same number for the full season. This indicates that UK didn't boost their ratings by blowing out weak teams, but underachieving against stronger teams.

One of UK's weaknesses this season was their propensity to commit turnovers, but UK actually had a lower turnover rate against NCAA teams than non-tourney teams. This is impressive given the fact that 9 of UK's 16 games against NCAA teams were against teams who ranked in the top 100 nationally in forcing turnovers. Only 3 times in these 16 games did UK commit turnovers at a higher rate than their opponent forced for the season. 

UK's 4 most played lineups all had a positive +/- against NCAA teams. UK's starting lineup in particular stepped up against the toughest competition. They posted an adjusted margin of +0.40 pts/poss against NCAA teams, compared to +0.31 for the full season. As table D in the stats profile indicates, they were especially potent offensively with a 63% effective FG%. 

UK has also been effective at limiting the shooting of NCAA tournament teams. Only 4 of UK's 16 games against NCAA teams saw the opponent post an eFG% better than their season average, and 1 of these was Tennessee (in the SEC seminfinals) barely beating their average 55.4% to 55.3%. Prior to that game, UK had held their prior 10 NCAA-level opponents to an eFG% below their season average. 

The bad: UK really struggled to force turnovers against NCAA tournament teams. For the season UK forced turnovers on 18% of their possessions, which was decidedly average (178th out of 353 teams). Against NCAA teams, this dropped to only 14%; that would have ranked next to last nationally as a full season number. These games are against tougher competition than average, but only 4 of UK's games against NCAA teams were against teams in the top 100 in avoiding turnovers (and 3 of those were Tennessee). It's a bad sign that UK struggled so much to turn the ball over.

This shows up in Table C in the one pager, which breaks down UK's shots by the time taken on the shot clock. UK and their opponents took about the same percentage of shots within the first 10 seconds, which indicates fast break chances,but UK had an effective FG% of 50% while opponents was 58%. This works out to a difference of about 2.5 points per game. Given that 2 of UK's losses to NCAA teams were by 2 points or less (Seton Hall, LSU), it's safe to say that 2.5 points could be a real difference. A low rate of forcing turnovers also had a fairly strong relationship with poor performances by UK against NCAA teams. Of their 4 worst efforts in forcing turnovers, 3 were losses (Duke, and both Tennessee losses). 

The ¯\_(ツ)_/¯: One odd stat that stands out from Table D of the one pager is that UK has a negative +/- against either 4 or <2 opposing starters for NCAA teams, but a positive +/- against 5, 3, and 2. The margin when playing les2 than 2 starters is only in 17 possessions so it's probably meaningless, but the issues against 4 starters came in a much larger sample. Of the -39 scoring margin, -18 came in the opener against Duke, and the 4 starters were usually their 4 star freshmen. But UK posted a scoring margin of 0 or worse in 11 of their 16 games against NCAA teams, including a disastrous -21 against Ole Miss recently. The lineup that has been the biggest culprit is Hagans/Herro/Johnson/Washington/Montgomery, who is -14 in 34 possessions against 4 starters, with a -11 in 15 against Ole Miss. This group rebounded very poorly in that game and committed turnovers 3x as often as Ole Miss. The odd thing is, they were +13 in 11 possessions against 5, 3, or 2 starters, and had no issues rebounding or turning the ball over. It seems like UK's struggles against 4 starters are highly flukey and not indicative of a problem.

UK also is a bit more dependent on Reid Travis and PJ Washington against NCAA teams than over the full season. With Travis and Washington in, UK's adjusted margin rises to +0.35 pts/poss against NCAA teams, compared to +0.31 pts/poss for the full season. Given that UK's overall adjusted margin is the same against NCAA teams as for the full season, this means UK falls off even more when Travis or Washington sits. Some of this is impacted by Travis' injury, but it's critical that these players stay out of foul trouble during the NCAA Tournament for UK to reach their potential.

What it means for UK: There's no reason to think that UK will be vulnerable as a 2 seed. They've shown all year that they can hang with anyone, with the exception of the season opener. The fact that UK has several oft-used lineups who have had success against NCAA teams is crucial, as it means that the Cats are unlikely to suffer a prolonged stretch of getting outscored due to weak lineups. Given the extra commercial breaks during the tournament, UK may be able to rely on their main lineups even more than usual and improve their performance even further.

 While UK has had struggles this season committing turnovers, these have had very little to do with how go the opponent is at forcing turnovers. For example, Auburn led the nation by forcing turnovers on 25% of their possessions. UK committed a turnover on only 17% of their possessions, slightly beating the Wildcats own season average. It doesn't seem like UK is especially vulnerable to teams who force turnovers; in fact, if UK can avoid turnovers in these games it may actually be an advantage to play them. 

On the flipside, UK may not get much benefit from playing turnover-prone teams. Given that UK has struggled to force them, these teams may find it refreshing to play a game without losing the ball as often. 

UK should be able to match up well against teams who rely on strong shooting, however. Given that UK has established the ability to hold opponents below their average eFG% as well as do a solid job on the defensive boards, UK should be able to take away this strength from opponents.

UK should match up well against teams who force turnovers and rely on shooting. In their bracket, UNC, Auburn, Wofford and interestingly enough, Abiliene Christian, all roughly approximate this type of team. Even better, none are particularly turnover-prone, so UK won't be giving them a significant reprieve if they don't force turnovers. From an advanced stats perspective, it's a pretty good bracket for UK, with several potential matchups against teams with favorable profiles. If they play up to their standards, UK should be making a deep run. 
I want to thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. At Hoops Insight, I hope to use data to find insights that reveal things you didn't realize about the Kentucky Wildcats. I'm using play-by-play data to track what's happening, who's doing it, and who is in the game, in order to show you things the box score can't. Check out my past newsletters in the Hoops Insight Archive, and read about the stats I like to use in my stats glossary.

If you have any questions about things I'm saying, the data behind it, or if you just want to debate a point, feel free to contact me on Twitter at @hoopsinsights or email at sean@hoopsinsight.com. I'd love your feedback on the newsletter and how I can improve. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy my work.
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