Final Four 2014, Wisconsin vs. Kentucky: Inside the numbers

Ronald Martinez

A deeper look inside the seasons of Wisconsin and Kentucky shows some intriguing similarities.

With a week of lead time, everybody and their mothers have had a chance to analyze the Wisconsin-Kentucky matchup. If you look at the numbers, focusing on the Four Factors and adjusted efficiencies available at Kenpom.com, a few things are quickly apparent:

-- Both teams can score.

-- Both teams can get scored on.

-- Kentucky is an offensive rebounding force to behold, collecting 42.5 percent of its misses, best in the country.

-- Wisconsin does a great job on the defensive glass, ranking 13th in the country at defensive rebounding.

So it is strength versus weakness for whomever has the ball, and strength versus strength when Kentucky misses a shot.

But one of the weaknesses in these aggregate numbers is that both teams have played a lot of games against overmatched opponents. So I looked into how each team has performed against top-59 Kenpom teams* and compared that to how they've performed against sub-60 Kenpom teams, in an effort to see how these elite teams might match up against each other. (Note: all these numbers were taken from KenPom's "Game Plan" pages; the numbers are unadjusted, and the averages of the games don't necessarily add up to the overall averages, but they're in the ballpark.)

*When I ran these numbers, St. John's was ranked 61st. It has subsequently moved up to 60th, which is why this analysis is of the top 59 instead of the top 60.

KENTUCKY OFFENSE
EFF eFG% TO% OR% FTR
All 112.7 50.3 18.3 42.3 52.9
Sub 60 116.5 50.6 17.4 45.1 56.1
Top 59 108.5 49.9 19.3 39.1 49.3
Difference -8 -0.7 1.8 -6 -6.8

Unsurprisingly, Kentucky is significantly less efficient against Top 60 teams (whom it has went 9-9 against). The big differences are in rebounding and free throws. Kentucky absolutely dominated weak teams on the offensive glass, and got to the line a ton. The Wildcats' numbers aren't quite as good against quality opponents -- but they are still very good. For example, Kentucky's OR% of 39.1 would still be eighth-best in the country!

WISCONSIN OFFENSE
EFF eFG% TO% OR% FTR
All 115.6 53.3 12.6 28.0 44.1
Sub 60 119.8 54.6 11.9 29.3 42.0
Top 59 111.6 52.1 13.4 26.9 46.0
Difference -8.2 -2.5 1.5 -2.4 4.0

Wisconsin is similarly less efficient against top-59 opponents (whom the Badgers have compiled a 14-5 record against), mainly because they shoot and rebound a little worse. Curiously, they get to the line more against quality opponents, but this may be just because the games are closer and there are more free throws down the stretch.

KENTUCKY DEFENSE
EFF eFG% TO% DR% FTR
All 99.9 46.1 16.1 29.4 38.3
Sub 60 93.1 42.9 16.6 26.7 35.9
Top 59 107.4 49.7 15.4 32.4 41
Difference 14.4 6.9 -1.2 5.7 5.2

Kentucky has really struggled to stop quality teams from scoring. We've seen this in the tournament, as both Wichita St. and Michigan scorched the Wildcats for more than 1.2 points per possession, which is almost always enough to win. Quality teams have been better in every category. Notably, quality teams have an eFG% of nearly 50, which is quite mediocre. Good teams have also been able to get rebounds and get to the line against Kentucky.

WISCONSIN DEFENSE
EFF eFG% TO% DR% FTR
All 100 47.2 15.6 26.3 27.5
Sub 60 96.7 47.6 17.6 26.1 21.2
Top 59 103.1 46.8 13.7 26.6 33.5
Difference 6.4 -0.8 -4 0.5 12.3

Wisconsin's defense has been considerably more consistent, and significantly better against quality teams. Part of this is that some lower-quality teams (like North Dakota, Oral Roberts and Indiana) scored at will against the Badgers.

Perhaps the most interesting stat in this breakdown is that the Badgers' defensive rebounding has been consistently good against good teams and bad. This makes sense, since Wisconsin relies on scheme rather than athleticism to protect the defensive glass. But I think also shows that the Badgers have really improved in that category. Early in the year, the Badgers had some struggles keeping bad teams off the glass; now they seem to have corrected some of those problems and have been pretty successful at keeping even very good rebounding teams (like Baylor) in check.

All in all, these numbers paint an optimistic picture for the Badgers. Prior the tournament, Kentucky struggled mightily against better teams, and Wisconsin has notably played very well against some very good teams all year long. But the narrative is that the Kentucky team that we saw for most of the year is not the Kentucky team the Badgers play tonight; that those talented young men have grown up and learned how to use their abundant talents to play winning basketball.

We'll see.

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