It’s Friday…let’s have a little fun/debate, shall we?
Before a season begins, one way to attempt to gauge the anticipated success of a particular team is to find ways to compare them with other teams that have had success. For example, last year’s Kentucky basketball team was the ultimate definition of success. They won a national championship and dominated the college basketball scene from start to finish. This year’s team comes in with mostly a crop of new players, most of which have yet to prove anything on a college basketball court. Of course it’s unfair to say we can predict how the season will turn out for this team. There are so many unknowns from injuries to team chemistry to the talent level of the competition (and how injuries, team chemistry, etc. effect those teams as well). I’ve heard a lot of people try to compare this year’s team side-by-side, position-by-position with last year’s 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball team. For a number of reasons, I think that is a difficult comparison to make. First and foremost, the 2011-2012 team was arguably the best Kentucky basketball team in years. Second, after a year of being saturated with every single moment and play made by the players on the 2011-2012 team, we might have a hard time being objective. That team stole our hearts and we feel like we know the players like the back of our hand.
For the reasons mentioned above, I am not going to try to compare this year’s team to last year’s team. Instead, I am going to offer up another type of comparison. Looking at the rosters and players from the teams Kentucky faced in the NCAA tournament last season, with the information we have, how far do you think this year’s team would have gone in last year’s tournament? We may know more about the proven talents of the players on the teams we faced in last year’s tournament, but we probably know a lot less about them and feel less of a connection than to our Kentucky team from last year.
I’m going to attempt to make side-by-side, player-by-player comparisons, offering an opinion (though trying to be as objective as possible) about how far this year’s team could have gone with the same draw in the tournament. Feel free to agree, disagree, voice your reasoning as well. I think this brings up some good discussion points.
Round of 64: Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky and Round of 32: Kentucky vs. Iowa State
– I am going to forgo a side-by-side, player-by-player comparison for these 2 games. Barring a major upset, which of course has happened before with Western Kentucky specifically, I like Kentucky’s chances against Western Kentucky regardless of the year and the team. I think this year’s team would move by WKU without a serious threat. Regarding Iowa, although Royce White would have provided a formidable challenge for our big men down low, much like the contest in last season’s NCAA tournament, the level of athleticm Kentucky has versus the reliance on outside shooting needed for Iowa State to succeed would have resulted in a Kentucky win.
Sweet 16: Kentucky vs. Indiana
Point Guard: Ryan Harrow vs. Jordan Hulls (Adv- Harrow)
Shooting Guard: Archie Goodwin vs. Victor Oladipo (Adv: Goodwin)
Forward: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Will Sheehey (Push)
Forward: Alex Poythress vs. Christian Watford (Adv: Poythress)
Center: Nerlens Noel vs. Cody Zeller (Push)
First 2 off the bench: Willie Cauley-Stein/Julius Mays vs. Matt Roth/Remy Abell (Adv- UK)
*Result: I may meet some resistance with this, but I think player for player, Kentucky would have been the better team. The Cody Zeller/Nerlens Noel match-up would have been the key match-up in my mind. Although the advantages given to Goodwin and Poythress may not have been by the biggest margin, I still think both of those players are more talented than their counter-parts last season. The game would have been close due to the chemistry and the well-executed offense of Indiana late in the season, but Kentucky wins in a close game due to better talent at more positions.
Elite 8: Kentucky vs. Baylor
Point Guard: Ryan Harrow vs. Pierre Jackson (Adv- Jackson)
Shooting Guard: Archie Goodwin vs. Brady Heslip (Adv- Goodwin)
Forward: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Quincy Miller (Adv- Miller)
Forward: Alex Poythress vs. Quincy Acy (Push)
Center: Nerlens Noel vs. Perry Jones III (Push)
First 2 off bench: Willie Cauley-Stein/Julius Mays vs. Deuce Bello/A.J. Walton (Adv-UK)
*Result: Coming into this game last season, Baylor was considered to be one of the few teams able to go toe-to-toe in terms of athleticism with Kentucky. In reality, it wasn’t as close as people expected it to be. I do believe that Baylor team would be superior athletically to this season’s Kentucky team. I think Goodwin would be able to neutralize Heslip’s perimeter shooting with good defense and I think the battles between Acy/Poythress and Noel/Jones III would prove to be the difference. This one is almost too close to call, but I’ll give the slight edge to Kentucky due to Calipari’s coaching ability and the fact that all of his Kentucky team’s have been excellent defensively.
Final Four: Kentucky vs. Louisville
*Disclaimer: For playing time purposes I will consider Russ Smith the starting SG in this comparison and Chris Smith one of the first 2 off the bench. Keep in mind this is looking at last year’s Louisville team and not this year’s Louisville team (which i think will be better than last year’s Louisville team.)
Point Guard: Ryan Harrow vs. Peyton Siva (Adv- Siva)
Shooting Guard: Archie Goodwin vs. Russ Smith (Adv- Goodwin)
Forward: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Kyle Kuric (Push)
Forward: Alex Poythress vs. Chane Behanan (Push)
Center: Nerlens Noel vs. Gorgui Dieng (Push)
First 2 off bench: Willie Cauley-Stein/Julius Mays vs. Wayne Blackshear/Chris Smith (Push)
*Result: In reality, I think it’s almost a “push” at every single position. When Peyton Siva is at his best, I would give him the advantage over Harrow and what we know of him so far. When Peyton Siva is bad, Peyton Siva is bad. Simply due to experience, I’ll give the slight edge to Siva. A similar situation with the Smith/Goodwin match-up. I think Russ Smith has the ability to go off, but Goodwin will be the more reliable scorer on a regular basis. He’s also more physically gifted than a very small Smith. The match-up of the Kyles might determine the winner of this game. Whichever team would be able to get the most production from that position might find the small advantage in the final score line. Poythress and Behanan would be an enticing match-up of two very good young players. Noel and Dieng would be an intriguing match-up as well, seeing as both are more gifted on the defensive end than the offensive end. I believe if you played this game 10 times, Kentucky would win 5 and Louisville would win 5. If I’m trying to be extremely objective, due to experience, I might give Louisville 6 and Kentucky 4– but as you see, the margin looks to be very close.
I do think that if this year’s Kentucky team had played last year’s road in the tournament, and been able to beat Louisville in the Final Four–they would have had a great chance to win the national championship against Kansas. Kansas was a bit of an over-achieving team last season and I don’t see huge advantages at any position other than Thomas Robinson and perhaps Tyshawn Taylor at the point guard position.
The 2 biggest points of contention out of this whole comparison would be the Baylor and Louisville match-up. Do you think Kentucky would have held the advantage against both, one, or neither of those 2 teams? When comparing side-by-side, I think this year’s Kentucky team would have done no worse than the Elite 8 and could have had at least a 50/50 chance in each of the games leading to a possible national championship. Agree/disagree?