Now that the dust has settled regarding the schedule and roster, and with basketball season right around the corner, some major storylines are emerging. Who will separate themselves as Kentucky’s leader a la Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012? Will someone ignite the fan base with electric play from the time they put on the Kentucky jersey until the final buzzer sounds in March (or, hopefully, April) like John Wall did?
But there’s one storyline that I keep hearing that’s especially intriguing. Will Kentucky become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Poo-siers (Ok, I admit, that’s a little low) to go undefeated? The talent seems to be there with possibly the greatest incoming freshman class in the history of college basketball coupling with multiple strong returning players. Sound familiar? Well, that team was an Indiana buzzer-beater and some lame duck final minutes against Vanderbilt from accomplishing that feat. Well, today I’m going to discuss the major hurdles that Kentucky will have to face in order to do what no team has done since Bobby Knight was throwing chairs at players.
1. Random Chance: I know this is probably not what you expected to read but this is perhaps the biggest hurdle that Kentucky will have to cross this season. Did you know that a team who is a 10-point favorite in every game has between a .8% and 1.5% chance of going undefeated (h/t @BPredict)? I would venture to say that on average Kentucky will be a much higher than 10-point favorite in every game with the amount of bad non-conference and bad conference teams that Kentucky will face this year, but there is also the “giants” that Kentucky faces in Michigan State, North Carolina, Louisville, etc. (I’ll talk more about this later). But that only raises the chances slightly. Sometimes things just go wrong. The Harrison twins could find themselves both in foul trouble and the opposing guards could have their best games of the season. Things happen. People have off nights and people have on nights. In order for Kentucky to overcome this, UK is going to have to display a rare consistency that comes from a unique combination of talent and chemistry. They definitely have the talent, heck they probably have as much talent as the 2010 Kentucky squad. But will they display the immense chemistry that I’ve only seen the 2012 team show? This team will have to mesh quickly because of how early the Michigan State game is.
2. The Schedule: Some people may think that this is a copout choice, but that doesn’t make it less of an obstacle. As my man Kevin Hart likes to say, this schedule is real and it is happening. This season Kentucky faces Michigan State on a neutral site, North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Baylor in Dallas, Louisville in Rupp, a fringe top-25 team Boise State in Lexington, Florida twice (although that game is a lot less daunting without Chris Walker, unless he’s back second semester), Tennessee at home, and a very underrated LSU team twice. Also you can’t forget that going undefeated means you’ve won both the SEC and NCAA tournament, meaning that they’ve defeated another slew of high-quality opponents (maybe Louisville a second time, anyone?). But the fact of the matter is that those are all teams that serve a reasonable chance of beating Kentucky this year. Sure, LSU has almost no chance of defeating Kentucky in Rupp, but who is to say they can’t have a hot game down in Baton Rouge when Kentucky also happens to have one of their worst games. Both are definite possibilities. Just like the last bullet point, Cal is really going to have to approach every game with a winner-take-all attitude if he really wants to get it done (which I think he has expressed very openly).
3. Upset Factors: Every year around NCAA tournament time, ESPN releases their list of “Giant Killers,” which uses statistics from previous seasons in order to see what teams stand the best chance of pulling an upset. The system uses a variety of statistics including free throw rate, effective field goal percentage, and other statistics that you probably don’t care about. But two of the more important stats that they use are turnover rate (both offensively and defensively), and three-point rate (both offensively and defensively). Teams that are particularly strong in those two areas stand a strong chance at pulling an upset.
Well unfortunately for Kentucky, those two areas may be the biggest question marks this season. It is well documented that Calipari likes his teams to play a more conservative style defense where you play smart and sound team basketball instead of being overly aggressive and forcing turnovers. In fact, UK has finished no better than 218th in the country under Calipari in defensive turnover percentage. Offensively, UK has been hit or miss in regards to turning the ball over. In 2010, they were 164th in the country in offensive turnover percentage, but in contrast, they finished 10th in the country in offensive turnover percentage in 2011.
The other major category is three-point percentage. UK has been better in this statistic than in turnovers but early in the season there could be some questions. Remember Miami (OH)? Yeah, so do I. But the major reserve about this Kentucky team is how well they’ll shoot the three-ball. Losing Kyle Wiltjer will hurt more than people think, as it leaves James Young and the Harrison twins as our only deep threats. The twins are going to need to not only shoot the ball well, but consistently. If they shoot a “streaky” 40%, well that’s just going to make going undefeated all the much tougher.
Now, I don’t mean for this to be a negative article slamming Kentucky’s chances of going undefeated this season because it could definitely happen. This article is more of a combat to those saying “OMG, we got the twins and Randle, no chance anyone beats us!” Because UK is going to be good. Check that, UK is going to be great. If UK loses more than 3 games this year I would be shocked. They’re going to be talented, balanced, deep, pretty much everything you need in order to be amazing. I’m just trying to be realistic about my expectations. So just strap in your seat belts, because this is going to be a fun ride.