Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Court Report: Why Kentucky’s not (yet) a true NCAA title contender; Duke-UNC tops epic weekend of top-10 games

Kentucky is back where it belongs: consistently ranked in the top 10, playing entertaining basketball with one-and-done talent and pushing toward a high NCAA Tournament seed. The 10th-ranked Wildcats are 15-4, vying back at the top of the SEC and is the first UK squad in years that looks capable of beating anyone.

But should it be considered a national title contender?

As of now, probably not. But there’s still time for that to change.

Offense is no issue. I’d argue there’s not a team with more talent and depth than these Cats. John Calipari’s squad ranks ninth in adjustive offense efficiency at KenPom.com, its scoring average (88.5) is No. 5 nationally. And the 3-point shooting? A sublime development for Kentucky fans who have watched many of Calipari’s teams be mediocre from deep. This group is one of the best 3-point teams in college hoops (40.2%).

But without substantial upgrades, its defense is what will prevent Kentucky from winning it all.

Coming out of the weekend, a good development in the form of a 63-57 win at Arkansas. It was statistically Kentucky’s second-best defensive performance this season and jumped the Wildcats from 96th all the way up to 70th in adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s an eye-opening leap. Kentucky will need more outings like that — next up: home vs. Florida on Wednesday — in order to have the pre-NCAA Tournament profile of a national champion. 

How do I know? 

Thanks to the research wizardry of the man himself, Ken Pomeroy, we can see what kind of history this talented Kentucky crew is up against. Even better: You can use this data to compare against other good teams with worrisome defensive numbers (No. 6 Wisconsin [43rd], No. 18 Baylor [68th] and No. 24 Alabama [66th] all currently fall under that distinction).

The lowest-ranked defense in the KenPom era (since 1996-97) at the START of the NCAA Tournament that won a title was 2020-21 Baylor (44th). Only four teams have started the NCAA Tournament ranked outside the top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency and won it all. As of today, Kentucky sits at 70th

They key for UK, Wisconsin, Baylor, etc.: nobody’s been ranked 45th on defense or worse the day after Selection Sunday and won five NCAA games, let alone six.

Defensive KenPom rank of NCAA champs since 1997

Tournament year Champion KenPom rank Adj. DE rank Seed
1997 Arizona 11 17 4
1998 Kentucky 3 9 2
1999 UConn 4 1 1
2000 Michigan State 3 7 1
2001 Duke 1 2 1
2002 Maryland 4 12 1
2003 Syracuse 20 31 3
2004 UConn 5 10 2
2005 North Carolina 2 6 1
2006 Florida 6 18 3
2007 Florida 3 14 1
2008 Kansas 1 3 1
2009 North Carolina 3 37 1
2010 Duke 2 5 1
2011 UConn 15 27 3
2012 Kentucky 1 6 1
2013 Louisville 2 1 1
2014 UConn 25 12 7
2015 Duke 6 37 1
2016 Villanova 5 7 2
2017 North Carolina 3 25 1
2018 Villanova 2 22 1
2019 Virginia 1 5 1
2021 Baylor 4 44 1
2022 Kansas 6 29 1
2023 UConn 4 18 4

There’s a big difference between making a Final Four and winning it all, however. 

For the 104 Final Four teams since 1997, the average AdjDE is 21.88 — with a variety of outliers. If Kentucky fans aching to merely get back to their first Final Four since 2015 are setting THAT as the bar, I’ve got good news. Nine teams in the past 26 tournaments have made the Final Four ranked 50th or worse in adjusted defensive efficiency, with five of those teams ranked between 80th and 132nd. You can be unexceptional on defense for four months and still pull it together to make the Final Four. This is the list of the worst defenses in the modern era to do it.

  • 2002-03 Marquette (16th overall at KenPom, 80th in defense)
  • 2020-21 UCLA (44th overall, 86th in D)
  • 1999-00 UNC (29th overall, 100th in D)
  • 2010-11 VCU (82nd overall, 126th in D)
  • 2022-23 Miami (40th overall, 132nd in D)

What do all of them have in common? None made the title game, let alone won the whole thing. (High-ranking defenses being held back by mediocre offenses is another matter for another day.)

Kentucky (20th at KenPom and ninth in offensive efficiency) will surely entertain us over the next two months, but it needs to evolve beyond being a team trying to win a race to 80-plus points. The Wildcats have 15 games to upgrade their defensive identity, otherwise their March fate won’t include an Arizona April finale.

Cooley determined to build Georgetown the PC way

Ed Cooley is never going to leave you looking for just one more quote; if anything, he offers too many good ones. That in mind, here’s a follow-up from my Providence trip. Cooley’s comments Saturday about Providence understandably were what most media latched on to, but there’s another angle he took multiple times after his team’s 84-76 loss.

In between his reflections on how Providence made him the coach he’d always wanted to be — why PC fans should keep their energy and optimism pointed in Kim English’s direction, not his, and refusing to apologize for the way he left — Cooley also had some marked words about what will eventually happen in Washington, D.C.

“All this that ‘change wasn’t in the air.’ Change was in the air,” Cooley said. “I’m grateful to have an opportunity to do something where we’re gonna prove everybody wrong. It’s just a matter of time.” 

When he said those words, they were HEAVILY emphasized

Cooley believes he will not only pull the Hoyas back into national relevance, but that he can do there what he did for PC: win multiple Big East titles, put together an NCAA Tournament appearance streak and ignite widespread emotional investment into Georgetown (a program on its way to another non-winning season, its eighth in a nine-year span).

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 23 Butler at Georgetown

Georgetown has one above-.500 season in the past eight years. Getty Images

To hear Cooley now is to hear him more confident than ever.

“It’ll be one of the greatest stories in all of college sport,” he said. “Because the doubt is: ‘Can they do it, will they do it? ‘It’s not the same place.’ And no, it’s not. It’s not the same place. It’s not. But what it is is rich in tradition, is rich in recruiting and rich with opportunity.”

Cooley might well do it, but one of the biggest reasons why some were skeptical he’d leave for Georgetown was the heavy workload that would be involved in a rebuild at a place with notorious dysfunction and outdated practices on how to operate a men’s basketball program. (Cooley knows people are doubting his drive to put into the hustle, and admitted as much to me last summer on the recruiting trail.) 

He had it made. Providence was well-oiled. But living in comfort wasn’t how Cooley wanted to finish out his career. 

There are factors working in his favor and against. He has a fantastic recruiting territory, but Georgetown has the worst home environment in the Big East. He’ll never have in D.C. what he built at The Dunk. Georgetown is a job with a high ceiling, but the place is not wired for a quick turnaround. If Cooley gets the Hoyas into the NCAA Tournament by Year 3, it would be astounding. Will he have the patience for it? If we check in two years from now and Cooley is on his way to another season at or below .500, what then? 

The Ed Cooley Georgetown Experience is one of the sport’s most curious storylines of the next couple of years.

“It’s on to the next chapter of your life. And I’m looking forward to that chapter. Because that’ll be the best chapter that’s in that book,” he said.

That’s a stinging statement/big prediction from a guy who is the only person to leave one Big East coaching job for another — and especially after what he accomplished over 12 years at Providence.

Top 10 teams historically bad on road vs. the unranked

If you’ve been checking in regularly since November, you know that highly ranked teams have been routinely getting picked off against unranked competition. 

But it’s never been this gruesome. This is the worst season ever for AP top-10 teams in road games against unranked foes. I thought this motif was teed up for a Tuesday, one night removed from No. 7 Duke playing at Virginia Tech and No. 4 Houston playing at Texas … but both those teams bucked the trend and pulled out road conquests. Regardless, we’re still tracking toward historic deficiency in this very specific corner of the sport. 

This trend was first publicized last week by Kentucky Sports Radio’s Brandon Ramsey. Then, statistician (and former Duke manager) Andrew Weatherman dove deeper into the data on just how uncommonly unkind this season has been to top-10 teams playing in road environments vs. unranked opponents.

Guys, it’s DRASTIC. Over the previous 73 years, top-10 teams beat unranked road foes 73.3% of the time in all those matchups. On a year-by-year basis, the worst season was 2015-16 (62%). This season it’s 44.9%.

And if not for the past few days of road wins by top-10 schools, the winning clip would be worse. Check Weatherman’s recent research here. Top-10 teams were gliding below a 40% win rate deep into January.  

Now, this clip is likely to move closer to 50% by the end of the season, but it’s still such a statistical anomaly, we need to uncover all the factors at play here. The Big 12 is 11-deep and it will have many NCAA Tournament teams not in the rankings in a given week. That’s a small part of it, sure. Rosters are as old as they’ve ever been due to the bonus COVID year, so that’s probably playing a part. The sport might be on its way to its most efficient offensive season ever, and maybe that ultimately benefits home teams more than road ones. There are a lot of ingredients in this stew, and I love this kind of volatility. It portends a spicy March!

Record-setting slate of top-10 matchups this weekend

It’s only Tuesday, but consider this is your official bulletin to clear the calendar and prepare for the best weekend of the regular season. Good lord, check what’s coming Saturday/Sunday (all times Eastern):

Saturday
No. 4 Houston at No. 8 Kansas, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 7 Duke at No. 3 North Carolina, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 5 Tennessee at No. 10 Kentucky, approx. 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Sunday
No. 2 Purdue at No. 6 Wisconsin, 1 p.m. (CBS)

That’s four top-10 tilts in a two-day span. Historic, because it’s the first time we’ve ever had four top-10 matchups on a regular-season weekend. This type of thing is usually reserved for the postseason schedule.

What sends it over the top is Duke and UNC squaring off for the 49th time as top-10 clubs. No other two teams have ever had as many as 15 top-10 affairs. Absurd. And, as was pointed out by Carolina stat guru Bryan Ives on social media, OF COURSE these two are 24-24 in their previous 48 meetings under these circumstances.

Beyond the headliners, we’ve also got No. 1 UConn at St. John’s (noon, Fox; I’ll be there), No. 17 Utah State at San Diego State (3:30 p.m., Fox) and No. 12 Iowa State at No. 18 Baylor (8 p.m., ESPN2) as must-see material. I thought that Dec. 16 weekend was destined to be the best of the regular season, but this one tops it.

@ me

The Court Report’s weekly mailbag! Find me on X/Twitter or Bluesky and drop a Q anytime.

We gotta start putting these youths in check with their overreliance and oft-erroneous use of the neo-adjective “mid.” Kids, Ed Cooley at Providence was not “mid.” If he was “mid,” there would not have been hundreds of fans who cared enough to wait in sub-40-degree temps for hours on Saturday morning outside Amica Mutual Pavilion. Cooley pulled Providence out of the Big East basement after arriving in 2011 and won the program its only regular-season conference title (2022), in addition to its second Big East Tournament title (2014). He took the Friars to seven NCAA Tournaments (a school record) and five straight bids (never done by any other PC coach) in his 12 years there — and would’ve gone an eighth time if we had a 2020 NCAA Tournament. A 242-153 record at the fourth-toughest job in the league (only DePaul, Butler and Seton Hall are harder). 

Louisville, if you’ve forgotten, was a good team that season: 24-7, pacing to a No. 4 seed. Dayton was a projected No. 1 seed and enjoying an all-time year. Since then, here are their records:

Louisville: 36-58, no NCAA Tournaments, best conference finish is seventh
Dayton: 76-36, no NCAAs, twice finished second in A-10

Bigger “impact”? It’s Louisville and it’s not remotely close and that will still be true a year from now, even if Louisville’s next hire is an immediate star. As I detailed in last week’s Court Report, Dayton being NCAA Tournament-good this season isn’t a surprise. The Flyers are right on schedule. 

The Wildcats’ win at Oregon Saturday was downright mandatory for my prediction to come true. Arizona and Oregon are tied in the Pac-12 at 6-3. KenPom projects Arizona to finish 15-5 — three games clear of the Ducks. Even with some head-scratching losses, I still think Tommy Lloyd’s team pulls away and wins by two games. I’ll say Arizona winds up as a No. 2 in the West.

We didn’t hit on App State on Sunday’s Eye on College Basketball podcast, but I’ll give Dustin Kerns’ team some love right here and now. The 17-4 Mountaineers sit atop the Sun Belt (7-1) after scribbling all over James Madison‘s Cinderella storyline thanks to having the league’s best defense and its most reliable 2-point offense. Kerns is trying to get App State to its second NCAA tournament since 2000. And yes, key to remember that this team beat Auburn. To date, App State is having the third-best season in the Tar Heel State, behind only Carolina and Duke.

Norlander’s news + nuggets

• Credit to the Big Ten for NOT holding an 18-team tournament starting next year. The release went on Tuesday: It’ll be a 15-team bracket (I would’ve stuck with 14, but fine) with the top four seeds still getting a double bye. 
Richmond‘s win over Dayton on Saturday was the Spiders’ 10th straight victory. It’s the first time since 1935 that Richmond’s won 10 in a row. Believe!
• More Atlantic 10: VCU plays at St. Bonaventure Tuesday night and brings along a nation’s-best 11-game road winning streak. How? By not allowing ANY opponent to hit 70 in those 11 games (also the longest streak nationally). The Rams are adjusting well under first-year coach Ryan Odom.
• If you’re a Providence fan you almost certainly already know this incredible stat, but for the rest of you, here’s a doozy: Over the past few years, the Friars are a mind-boggling 22-0 when John Fanta is the play-by-play announcer for a PC game. That is staggering. (H/T Jaden Daly)
• I’m full of “you won’t believe it” nuggets today. North Carolina has won its first nine ACC games this season, marking the first time since 2000-01 (under Matt Doherty) that UNC has opened 9-0 in the ACC. That’s right: Roy Williams never got this far. It’s also only the ninth time UNC has opened 9-0. (H/T Isaac Schade
• Credit to OC Register reporter Luca Evans for getting on-record accounts of the moments and hours surrounding Bronny James‘ heart scare last summer. Give that a read.
• Buy stock in Iowa State as a Sweet 16 team, and not just because they took care of business against Kansas over the weekend. The Cyclones get 22.3 points off turnovers, No. 1 nationally.
Matt Brown‘s Extra Points newsletter gets into the nitty gritty of what the WCC contracts with Oregon State and Washington State look like. Short-term, it’s a great marriage for all.
• As my pal Jeff Borzello of ESPN pointed out recently, Utah and Nebraska are bubble teams with split personalities in conference games. They’re the only Big Six programs undefeated at home and winless on the road vs. intra-league foes. Nebraska is +59 at home, -72 on the road; Utah is +103 in its building and -84 away. If those trends don’t break, neither will make the NCAAs.
TCU is charting a course to be the most dramatic team in the dramatic Big 12. Six out of the seven league games for the Horned Frogs so far have been decided by five points or fewer. Might be a team to fade.
• The nation’s leading scorer plays for Denver University. His name is Tommy Bruner (26.1 ppg) and last week he dropped 49 points — most by any player this season — in the Pioneers’ epic 111-110 win over South Dakota. Even better than his play is Bruner’s off-court mission. Bruner is raising money to build parks in areas of need (after he raised money for holiday gifts for so many in December). What a great story. 

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