The bracket leak was a bit of a surprise but Kentucky’s seeding was anything but. The UK Hoops squad has been slotted as a six-seed in the Greensboro region with a first-round matchup against the Princeton Tigers. So what do we know about the Ivy League champs? Absolutely nothing! But that’s about to change right now. Let’s talk a look at who the Tigers are and what their matchup against Kentucky might look like.
*Attached to each statistic is the team’s national rank out of 351 teams*
Overall record: 22-9 (12-2 in Ivy League): 11-seed
Points per game: 70.7 (73rd)
Opponents points per game: 63.1 (126th)
Scoring margin per 100 possessions: +11.0 (68th)
Simple RPI: 57.1 percent (50th)
Strength of schedule according to MasseyRating: 42.57 (98th)
Key Wins: Quinnipiac +12 (26-6), Penn – twice (22-6)
Key Losses: George Washington -15 (10-20), Seton Hall -4 (15-15), Penn St. -8 (12-17)
- Just by looking at the resume, Kentucky has a clear advantage over this team. Princeton’s lack of impressive wins does them no favors. Their 2-1 record this season against Penn is the team’s biggest accomplishment (and make no mistake, it is impressive) and an early season win over Quinnipiac – also an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament – show they are capable of taking down good teams.
- But those key losses are bad. After beating Rider in the season opener, Princeton went on to lose seven straight games, three of them coming against the teams mentioned not far above. But I should also note that Bella Alarie – who we’ll talk about more in a minute – didn’t play a game this season until Dec. 8 against Quinnipiac. She’s basically the entire team. Just by looking at Princeton’s record, which sits at 22-9, we can decipher that they eventually turned things around. A 1-7 start ended with a 21-2 run; the two losses coming against Penn and in overtime against Yale. They’ve won 12 in a row since the Yale loss, dominating mostly mediocre Ivy League teams struggling to straddle .500 records.
- The Tigers strength of schedule (98th) doesn’t frighten the Cats at all (who sit at 44th in the same ranking) and they give up a considerable amount of points for a team that played so many subpar opponents.
- The name you need to know more than other is Bella Alarie. You might recall Jack’s recent piece about Alarie and her insane ability to score the ball. She’s put up 45 against Columbia, 38 and 31 against Yale, 41 against Dartmouth, and 33 against Penn. 12 times this season has she posted at least 20 points in a game. She also did not go one game this year without scoring at least 10 points. She leads her Princeton squad in all four categories of points at 23.0 per game (7th in the nation), rebounds with 10.4, assists with 3.3, and blocks at 2.9 (5th in nation). At 6-foot-4, she’s converted on over 52 percent of her shots this season and can step out beyond the perimeter if she needs to (13-40 from three on the season – 32.5 percent). She ranks in the 90th percentile or higher in so many categories, according to Her Hoop Stats, that it doesn’t even make sense to list them all.
- But it’s not all about Alarie. Sure, she is 100 percent the team’s best player and has dominated the stat sheet since conference play began, but the Tigers go deeper than just one incredible player. Gabrielle Rush and Carlie Littlefield are the two dynamic guards for Princeton that will give the Cats fits. They combine to average 26 points per game and both average at least 1.5 steals per game. They can bomb threes with the best of them. Rush, specifically, will do everything in her power to take upwards of 10 threes in this matchup. She’s already attempted at least 10 threes in a game eight different times this season. She shoots right at eight triples per game, connecting on a hair under 35 percent of them. Over two-thirds of her shot attempts this season have been from deep. Littlefield isn’t the same type of sharpshooter – although she’s made 36.2 percent of her threes on 3.9 attempts per game – but is much more adept at getting to the rim. She gets to the charity stripe over four times per game while connecting on over 75 percent of her freebies.
- Outside of Alarie, Rush, and Littlefield, Princeton doesn’t offer much that should scare the Wildcats. Shutting down Alarie would end this game pretty quickly, even if the other two can get hot from deep.
- The statistics show that Princeton is a solid defensive team, although the numbers are heavily inflated by the pure presence of Alarie. She’s an elite scorer, rebounder, passer, and shot blocker who rarely makes mistakes. Just by being on the floor, Princeton goes from a team that lost seven-straight to winning 12 in a row shortly after. She’s going to take 20 shots in this game and will likely make more than half of them. Despite playing in only 22 games this season, she still ranks second in the country in most overall made field goals. It’s going to be the difficulty of the shots Kentucky forces that will decide the game.
- The most notable aspect of this game will be the rebounding war. If you haven’t heard by now, Kentucky is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country – ranking 340 out of 351 in defensive rebounds per game. They are slightly above average on the offensive glass, which can be credited to crafty guards crashing after misses and consistently high energy. But on the other end, their lack of big bodies betrays them. The Cats don’t have anyone who can size up with Alarie on the glass and the Tigers other rebounding expert, Taylor Baur, has been making a living on the glass since January. Baur’s 17.2 rebounding rate ranks above the 90th percentile among all players. Princeton is a middling team in terms of rebounding and are far superior on the defensive end than the offensive end, but the size of Alarie and Baur could make it difficult for Kentucky to sneak in for unexpected boards.
- But here are a few bright signs for Kentucky. Princeton isn’t a great three-point shooting team, something that has plagued the Cats several times this season. The Tigers don’t get to the free-throw line that often, despite posting an impressively high percentage (which Kentucky needs to be careful of, as they send opponents to the line more than most teams). Princeton also allows a concerning amount of shots to go up. They rank among the bottom 150 teams (out of 351) in overall field goals attempted/made. They’ve given up 210 three-pointers this season, 297th worst in the country. Maci Morris just yelped in excitement after reading that stat.
- Here’s what I expect from Princeton. Bella Alarie is going to go off. I don’t think there is any way around that at this point. She is a matchup nightmare for anyone on Kentucky’s roster. Rhyne Howard might find herself guarding the junior the most with Morris, Tatyana Wyatt, and KeKe McKinney giving it their best effort, as well. Princeton is probably going to block a lot of shots. They won’t make many mistakes if they can break a deadly full-court press from the Wildcats. They’ll produce a balanced scoring attack. Rush and Littlefield have to play at the top of their game.
- But Kentucky is going to win, and here’s why.
KEYS TO THE GAME
- Kentucky goes nine players deep with a solidified rotation heading into the postseason. The three-headed scoring monster of Howard, Morris, and Taylor Murray is unlike anything Princeton has seen this season. Alarie might be the most talented player on the floor, but Kentucky boasts the next best three.
- The outside shot is going to be vital for Kentucky’s success. As I ran through before, Princeton is not great at defending the three and the Cats trot out four players who shoot over 35 percent from deep. I wouldn’t expect another dreadful 0-16 shooting “exhibition” from downtown as we saw in the SEC Tournament.
- Murray giving both Littlefield and Rush hell in the full-court press will dictate the pace. The two Princeton guards combine to average 4.1 turnovers per game. Murray by herself averages 3.3 steals per game and is infatuated with aggressive ball handlers who think they can outsmart her with either speed or strength. She should have an absolute field day with picking apart the Tigers in the backcourt.
- Once Princeton crosses half court and can get Alarie involved is where they can beat the Cats. It’s hard to mess up when the majority of the Tigers offense is feeding Alarie. Keeping the ball out of her hands at all times will be huge. Expect double teams, maybe even triple teams, coming her way.
- A real test will be Howard, Wyatt, and McKinney battling with the Princeton bigs on the offensive glass. All three Wildcats are above-average rebounders on the offensive glass and a big reason the team earns a good amount of second-chance points.
- My prediction is Kentucky pulls away from Princeton late in the game. There might be some rust coming out of the gate after not playing in over two weeks and the Cats have been notorious for some slow starts in conference play. But the pure talent that Kentucky puts on the court puts them above the Tigers. The bench mob for the Wildcats should dominate the weaker and less-experienced second unit of Princeton. Alarie might go off for 25 points, but if no one else tops 10 then it’s a wrap for the Ivy League champions. Maci Morris needs to come out shooting with no fear. She’s really struggled from the field the last six games (15-61 overall – 24.5 percent) and is averaging under 10 points in those outings. If she can watch that first triple splash right through the net in the opening minute, that might be all she needs to get in a groove. We know what Murray brings with her defensive intensity and rim-driving. We know that Howard is going to get her shots up. A more involved offensive attack featuring McKinney and Wyatt along with a good shooting day from Morris will be the X-factors. A matchup in the second round against the winner of NC State-Maine is on the way.