Many, many years from now, some young UK fan will be looking at a list of all the previous NCAA tournament champions (because I’m sure that’s what people will do in the future). And they will see that in a 7-year period in the first quarter of the 21st century, there were 2 years where * was the national champion. This person in the future will then probably turn on the Google web browser installed in their retina to learn about the names Katina Powell and Minardi Hall. Next, they will read about the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, and how every sporting event in the world got shut down. This unknown future dweller will then probably find themselves thinking, as all of us UK fans will undoubtedly wonder for the rest of our lives, “would Kentucky have won the 2020 NCAA Tournament?”
My hope is that their Google Retina, will lead them down a wormhole that ultimately lands them on this article. Well, young whippersnapper, you are in luck. Here for your reading pleasure are the arguments for and against UK winning the 2020 title, and who the numbers say would have actually won it.
Depending on whether you are a glass is half-full or glass is half-empty type of person, you could make whatever prediction you wanted about this past years University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. This team could have cut down the nets, or gotten knocked out in the 2nd round. Lord knows there is plenty of evidence to support either theory. Let’s start with the optimistic view.
The Cup is Half Full
We have seen year after year that backcourts win chips, and have unfortunately seen guards that single-handedly will their team to a title (i.e. Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier for UConn). In end of game situations, it is guards who have the ball in their hands and are trusted to make the right decision, or when things break down use their God given talent to make something happen. UK was blessed with 3 guards on this team who excelled at creating their own shots, getting to the rim, or pulling up for a short floater.
And perhaps most importantly, they knocked down shots at the foul line. As a team, this group shot 79% from the charity stripe, which is the highest in school history. Immanuel Quickley’s 92.3% puts him at the 3rd best individual percentage in a season ever. Tyrese Maxey also had a top 50 all time free throw percentage at 83%, and Ashton Hagans wasn’t too shabby either at 81%.
The Cats also had an excellent rim protector in Nick Richards, who was really beginning to come into his own on the defensive end, finishing the season with 66 blocks. For context, that is only 1 less on the season than Willie Cauley-Stein had in 2015, and Nick did it in 8 fewer games.
So, what is there not to like about this team? Strong guards, an excellent shot-blocker, a core of solid role players (EJ, Nate, Keion, Johnny), big victories over Michigan State, Louisville, Texas Tech, SEC regular season champions; this team should absolutely be a contender, right?
Not so fast my friend…
The Cup is Half Empty
You remember Evansville, right? We know John Calipari does (Evansville, Evansville, Evansville). You know, that team that went 9-23 this year? Normally I wouldn’t care about Evansville’s 9 wins, but unfortunately one of those wins came at Rupp Arena. Considering the Purple Aces finished the year ranked 294th in the country in KenPom, went 0-18 in their conference, and was an overall complete disaster in every game they didn’t play against Kentucky, this was without a doubt the worst loss of my lifetime.
Sure, all the excuses are there: It was November, we had injuries and illnesses, but to put it simply, national championship teams don’t lose games like this, especially at home.
“But Tyler, what about all the games after that”, you ask? “Are you just going to gloss over that 15-3 conference record?” Well, I’m glad you brought that up actually. None of those 15 wins came by more than 14 points. Which I’m pretty sure in the history of Kentucky basketball, this is the first time we’ve never won a single conference game by 15 points or more (although my half-assed internet research failed to confirm this).
While this team proved capable of winning close games (a huge plus for tournament play), it also showed that it wasn’t going to blow out anybody and often played down to the level of their opponent (a huge downside for tournament play when you’re trying to win 6 games in a row).
Running the Numbers
So we’ve looked at the pros and cons of this team, and while we could argue back and forth all day about whether this team would have won a national title, let’s actually run some numbers to try and determine this once and for all.
With the NCAA deciding not to release an official bracket, it makes figuring out how far this team would have gone much more difficult. So much of the NCAA Tournament is random and a team’s path to a title is often just as important as how talented they are.
For the sake of this article, let’s use an actual bracket. Since there are about 1000 “bracketologists” out there, the fine folks over at bracketmatrix.com do a nice job of seeing which ones do the best at accurately predicting the actual NCAA bracket. Currently that top role belongs to “Bracketville” bracketville.wordpress.com). In their final bracket forecast released on March 12th, they had the Cats as a 3 seed in the Midwest, along with 1 seed Kansas and 2 seed Creighton. If we assume this would be the Cats path to a 9th championship, it’s certainly not the draw we would be hoping for.
Kansas is the one team we would want to avoid, as they were the hands-down odds on favorite to cut down the nets this year. However, it seemed inevitable as the season progressed that we were destined to be in their region. With that being said, if you told me to get to an Elite 8 would only require victories over Bradley, Iowa, and Creighton, well, you can sign me up for that right now. Here is the full draw for the Midwest Region:
In the history of the NCAA Tournament, the lowest seed to ever win a title was Villanova, an 8 seed in 1985. That means I am eliminating all teams seeded 9 or lower from contention and we are left with 32 teams. Apologies to Houston, Oklahoma, Arizona State, and Indiana. The odds are not in your favor as 9 seeds.
To eliminate some more, let’s look at the fact that in the last 31 years, 29 of the eventual national champions were a 1, 2, or 3 seed going into the tournament. That’s 94% of seasons that favor the top 3 seeds, and that’s good enough for me to eliminate all teams seeded 4 and under. Goodbye Louisville, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Maryland. That brings the total number of title contenders down to 12: (1 seeds: Kansas, Gonzaga, Dayton, Baylor; 2 seeds: Creighton, San Diego State, Villanova, Florida State; 3 seeds: Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke, Seton Hall).
Now that we are dealing with the top 12 teams, separation becomes a little more difficult, so let’s look at some numbers from my favorite computer ratings system over at kenpom.com.
Over the last 17 years, only 1 team (UConn in 2014, how did we lost that game???) has won a title that didn’t finish in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiencies in the KenPom ratings. Unfortunately, this statistic does not bode well for our beloved Cats, who while holding a respectable offensive ranking of 24th, lag far behind in the defensive end at 52nd. Again, we can probably thank the Evansville game for much of this low ranking, but the numbers don’t lie and the Cats must go. This would also eliminate Gonzaga (43rd in defense), Dayton (38th in defense), Creighton (78th in defense), Villanova (36th in defense), Florida State (32nd in offense), and Seton Hall (29th in offense).
So now we are left with 5 title contenders: Kansas, Baylor, San Diego State, Michigan State, and Duke.
Another fun KenPom fact, is that since these computer ratings started in 2002, every national champion has ranked in the top 30 in strength of schedule. This means it’s time to bid you adieu San Diego State (101st SOS) and Duke (54th SOS). Maybe next year you all will beef up that non-conference schedule a little bit.
That leaves us with 3 strong title contenders in Kansas, Baylor, and Michigan State. All 3 have solid resumes and the computer rankings to match. You could make an argument for any of these teams and there aren’t many more numbers to separate them.
And The Winner Is…
The strongest argument to be made however, is for the Kansas Jayhawks. You can’t win a championship if you don’t make the Final 4. And since 2012, the number 1 rated team in the KenPom rankings has made the Final 4 in all but one year (you guessed it, 2014 was the exception. What a bizarre year that was). With Kansas being that number 1 team this year, I’ll take the team that is most likely to have gotten to Atlanta to cut down the nets there. Finally, if you compare these 3 teams head-to-head, Kansas has the higher Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Strength of Schedule.
It also makes perfect sense that in a season that will end with an *, we crown the Jayhawks as the Lexbuds.com 2020 National Champion, a team that would have likely put one there anyway when the NCAA brings the hammer down on them this summer for all of the absurd recruiting violations from Bill Self and his hair piece, as well as one of the worst in-game brawls in recent memory.
Maybe it’s a good thing the NCAA Tournament was canceled?
Of course, none of these numbers may matter because basketball is played on a court and not a computer. The fact of the matter is this was not one of the top teams in the Calipari era. But I have a feeling that as the years move on, our collective memories will recall Immanuel Quickley as the best 3-point shooter since Steph Curry, Nick Richards was basically Dikembe Mutumbo on the defensive end, and this team had just mounted a 57-point comeback against Florida in their last game.
With no heartbreaking tournament loss to think about, this team will probably be remembered as better than they were, and as a team that would have made a deep run had they only had a chance. I guess we will never know, but I would like to go ahead and use this article to trademark the name Google Retina.