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Kentucky Wildcats
In today's Hoops Insight, I'm not going to spend too much time looking back at UK's win over Wofford. Rather, I'd like to focus on the Houston matchup. I do have a couple of notes about the Wofford win; first, here's the one page stats profile for UK in that game:

Stats profile for UK vs Wofford

A couple of interesting things stood out. As has been mentioned elsewhere, Jermarl Baker was a huge key for UK. I have his +/- as +18 in 27 possessions; this may vary elsewhere depending on how you account for his substitutions during free throws. Regardless, this is impressive and is his highest raw +/- that I can find. He played a lot, and UK played really well when he did. Baker also featured in UK's most played lineup, with a +9 in 16 possessions alongside Hagans/Herro/Travis/Richards. This is the second most possessions played this season by any lineup with Baker, behind only the 19 possessions played against UNC by Baker/Hagans/Herro/Travis/Washington. That group was +3 in that time. This season, there have been 10 times when a lineup with Baker has played 6 or more possessions in a single game. UK had a negative scoring margin in just one of those, a -1 in 6 possessions against Texas A&M for Hagans/Baker/Herro/Travis/Washington. UK has benefited whenever they have given a lineup significant time with Jemarl Baker.

Second, UK didn't go small much in this game. The Wildcats only played 7 possessions with 1 big man, with 6 of those featuring Travis only. UK did well in this time, outscoring Wofford by 3 points in those 7 possessions (and +5 in the 6 possessions with only Travis). This was a nice change of pace, and was UK's best performance when Travis was the only big man.

What should I know about the Houston Cougars?

Now that we're getting to the most meaningful games of the season, I'm doing something a bit new. For each of UK's remaining games this season, I'll be collecting play-by-play data on the opponent and doing some of the same analysis I do for UK. That means I'll have data on how lineups and players have played in specific games, and with specific combinations of players. For Houston, I've collected play-by-play data on their 11 games against "Quad 1" teams. Those games are as follows: Dec 1 vs Oregon, Dec 12 vs LSU, Dec 20 vs Utah St, Jan 9 at Temple, Feb 7 at UCF, Feb 10 vs Cincinnati, Mar 2 vs UCF, Mar 10 at Cincinnati, Mar 16 at Memphis, Mar 17 vs Cincinnati, and Mar 24 vs Ohio State. To start, here's Houston's one page stats profile in those games:

Stats Profile for Houston vs Quad 1 Teams

While Houston ranks 11th per KenPom for the full season, their gaudy rating takes a bit of a hit when focusing on games against Quad 1 level opponents. When playing these teams, who are roughly the level of NCAA Tournament teams, Houston was 8-3 this year and ranked 21st (per BartTorvik.com). As you can see in Table B in the stats profile, nearly all of Houston's stats take a hit when playing stronger teams. That's not surprising, but the level that some stats drop off is interesting. Houston's effective FG% is over 52% for the season, a respectable number that ranks just outside the top 100. When playing stronger teams, Houston's eFg% drops to 46%. This would rank roughly 180th nationally,which would make the Cougars the worst shooting team among all of the top-4 seed teams in the tournament. Houston's defensive rebounding also falls off, from over 74% for the season (62nd nationally) to 70% against Quad 1 teams (roughly 150th). Houston's biggest weakness is allowing free throws, and it's a weakness Quad 1 teams. Houston allows about 37 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts for the season, ranking 313th; they allow 43 free throws per 100 field goals when playing against Quad 1.

Kentucky should be able to draw free throws at a very high rate against Houston. Their big men and wings are nearly all foul prone, but stay out of foul trouble because none play more than half the game. A key for Kentucky will be if the Wildcats can draw fouls on Houston's 3 core players (Armoni Brooks, Corey Davis, Galen Robinson). While none have been foul prone for the season, they have all fouled more often when playing Quad 1 teams. Davis in particular may be foul prone against quality teams; he accumulated 3 or more fouls in 6 of the 11 Quad 1 games but only 4 of the other 25 games Houston played.

Houston's common lineups aren't the ones carrying them to victories

Among Houston's 5 most played lineups. 3 have a negative scoring margin against Quad 1 teams. 


The only common lineup Houston plays which has significantly outscored Quad 1 opponents is Davis/Robinson/Brooks/Alley/Gresham. According to KenPom.com, this lineup has not been among the 10 most frequent lineups in the past 5 games. Of their 28 possessions against Quad 1 teams, 18 came in the Dec 1 game vs Oregon. It's not likely this group will play against UK.

Houston's most common lineup has been outscored by 5 points when playing Quad 1 teams. They outscored Memphis by 8 points in 24 possessions in the AAC semifinals, but haven't been able to significantly outscore any other opponent. Their 2nd most common lineup is only +3, but were +8 against Temple Jan 9th and have struggled otherwise.

Instead of relying on tried and true lineups, Houston tends to get spurts from lineups who don't consistently play together. Against Ohio State, the lineup of Davis/White/Robinson/Gresham/Hinton outscored the Buckeyes by 9 points in 6 possessions thanks to a perfect 5-5 night shooting. This group only played together in 4 of the 11 Quad 1 games, however, and the 6 possessions against Ohio State was their season high. Likewise, a lineup of Davis/White/Brooks/Jarreau/Hinton outscored Cincinnati by 10 points in 8 possessions on March 10th while hitting 3-4 from three. This group only played in 5 of the 11 games, and only recorded 11 possessions played other than the Cincinnati game.

I've never quite seen anything like this, to be honest. Most quality teams have key lineups they can lean on, but Houston gets random contributions without a lot of consistency from their top lineups. 

The key to making the Cougars go seems to be Armoni Brooks. Brooks plays over 30 minutes per game, and has played over 80% of the time against Quad 1 teams. Houston has actually been outscored when Brooks sits, losing by 16 points in 125 possessions. Of the three core Cougars (Brooks, Davis, Robinson), Houston has a negative plus/minus only when Brooks sits. Kentucky will need to capitalize on the minutes when he is out of the game, as Houston loses much of what makes them special. When Brooks sits, opponents post a solid 51% eFG%, Houston turns the ball over on 22% of their possessions, and they only get 63% of their opponents' misses. To make matters worse, the majority of these minutes are played against 3 or fewer opposing starters, so Houston is falling apart against opponents' benches when Brooks sits. This was most pronounced against Houston's highest rated opponent, LSU; when Brooks sat, Houston was outscored by 10 points in 15 possessions. They recovered enough to win by 6, but that's quite a hole to dig.

The Cougars' defense gets even better late...but they don't capitalize

Houston's tough defense gets even better at the end of games. During the first 30 minutes of games, Houston allows opponents an eFG% of 46%. During the final 10 minutes, this plummets to 37%. Opponents hit only 22% of their threes during this final stretch. It's not just an issue of beating up on opponents in garbage time; when games are within 10 points either way in the last 10 minutes, Houston's opponents have an eFG% of 36%. 

This defense comes with a trade-off, however, Houston posts an eFG% of 44% themselves during the last 10 minutes of close games, and collect only 28% of their own misses and 68% of opponents'. This leads to Houston being outscored by 10 points in 116 possessions. 

This presents quite a battle late, as I've written about how Kentucky's shooting is red-hot during the end of close games (you can find that here). I believe Kentucky has the advantage, since they've built on this advantage to pull away from most teams. Houston has their strengths negated by some weaknesses, making it tough for me to believe they'll exert their will late in a close game.

The Wildcats' consistency should pull through

I believe that Houston will have some stretches where they go on runs powere dby hot shooting against UK, but I am not certain that Houston can really sustain this. It's also surprising that Houston doesn't seem to have any tried and true lineups they can rely on when they need to close out a game. During their last 6 games against Quad 1 teams, Houston has had 6 different lineups who played the most in the final 10 minutes. That puts a lot of pressure on their coaching staff to recognize who has earned the right to close the game. Even if Houston has a slight lead heading into the last 10 minutes, no single lineup has the trust and confidence to put UK away. Meanwhile, UK has very clearly established their clutch lineup of Hagans/Herro/Johnson/Travis/Washington, who the Cats have leaned on repeatedly to either come back or pull away late in games. Even if Washington is hurt, UK just showed that they can pull away late with  a core lineup...I don't know that Houston really knows they can do the same.

If Houston is going to pull the upset, they're going to need to ride their trio of Corey Davis, Galen Robinson, and Armoni Brooks. Brooks especially makes Houston go...if Kentucky is able to get him in foul trouble, contain his offense, or keep him from being an undersized spark plug on the boards, UK should be able to put away the Cougars.
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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