The University of Kentucky is two votes shy of being the unanimous number 1 in the NCAA men’s basketball AP poll. Is there a case to be made for Virginia, the team who is clinging on to the remaining two votes? Or is it just a couple rogue sports writers who fancy themselves as knowing better than the rest? It may be the latter. No one writes about sports because they have the answers to any real issues. Sports journalism is entertainment. It attracts no more the insightful thinker than does Hollywood.
I’ll take a stab at answering the needless questions posed above.
First, let’s look at strength of schedule. Opponents of the University of Virginia are a combined 183 -105, for a 63.5 winning percentage. Virginia’s future opposition has a combined record of 120 -60, for a 66.7% winning percentage. Even the most oblivious basketball fan would agree that the ACC is a competitive conference and things are about to get tougher for Virginia.
Kentucky has faced opposition with a combined record of 187-97 (65.8%) and the remaining opponents on the Wildcat’s schedule are 103-62 (62.4%). I would be reluctant to automatically give Kentucky the advantage here in the strength of schedule category, if I didn’t already know how they were doing in scoring margin. Even though I am disappointed that Kentucky did not play Indiana, they made up for it with a pretty strong non-conference schedule.
Despite the recent close games the Wildcats have had to fight to the end to win, they still lead the country in scoring margin at 24.7. However, Virginia is third at 19.4. There isn’t another SEC team in the top 30 in scoring margin; but Louisville and North Carolina are in the top 17. Kentucky has played and beaten both. Gonzaga is number two, if you were wondering. Advantage to Kentucky.
On the offensive side of the ball, Kentucky is ranked 31st in scoring at 75.5 points per game. Virginia is ranked 125th at 70 points per game. Right there, you could say, is the 5 point differential in scoring margin. But a closer look shows that Kentucky has created more possessions for themselves than Virginia has been able to muster. However, Virginia is shooting over 48% from the field and Kentucky is shooting a decent 45.7%. That is still a sizeable gap in shooting percentage especially when you consider the dominance that Kentucky has over every opponent down low.
Virginia has been the better 3-point shooting team, making 98 of 249 (39.4%). Kentucky has made 111 of 310 attempts (35.8%). Kentucky has forced 284 turnovers while Virginia has forced 167. The Wildcats defensive style leads to many more fouls (303) than Virginia (254). But the games that Kentucky has played down to the wire, has required them to shoot and make more free throws than their opponents.
The facts are these; you would have to stretch some pretty obscure statistics to find any objective evidence that would suggest that Virginia should get a first place vote over Kentucky at this point in the season. Kentucky should not lose to any of their remaining opponents. It would not be out of the question for Virginia to lose a game two, as they are facing the tougher part of their schedule However, it is also not a stretch to say that Kentucky is not playing their best basketball of the season. They were clearly further along than anyone they faced early on; including Louisville, North Carolina, and Kansas.
Maybe what the writers see is a team that is not progressing as expected. A team that looked so invincible early in the season, is now playing close games with just about everyone. Maybe the Wildcats are actually not improving. While the schedule has gotten seemingly easier, the scoring margin has dropped from 29 to the 24 point range. It has taken some clutch free throws and streaky 3-point shooting to bail them out a few times here of late. Is the media waiting for the other shoe to drop?
The $800K coach Cal spent in the Bahamas this past August sure had his team firing on all cylinders when the season opened. But now that we are in the midst of the conference grind, with 13 games left on the regular season schedule, can you say that the Cats are playing championship basketball?
We are about to find out what Virginia is made of; their next five games are: Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech, Duke, at Louisville, and NC State. Four of the Wildcats next six games are on the road. Are the Wildcats saving something or are they stuck in neutral? This is why they play the games. No one is going to hand them 40 and 0. The Wildcats deserve each and every first place votes until they lose.