In one of the season’s more memorable games, Duke traveled to Virginia and took down the undefeated Cavaliers. The upset left Kentucky as the lone unbeaten team in Division I college basketball. The Wildcats have easily been the most widely-covered team and the national title favorite all season. At 22-0, 18 games stand between Big Blue Nation and the first perfect season since 1976, and it’s time to consider just how good Kentucky is — and if they’re truly that much better than the rest of the NCAA.
One way to judge a team is by the “eye test.” I put less credence in this than in, you know, actual objective measures, but Kentucky looks like a damn good basketball team. The Wildcats wasted no time living up to their pre-season #1 ranking. They demolished the formidable Kansas Jayhawks on a neutral floor in the season’s first week before racking up home wins against Providence, Texas, and North Carolina. In their toughest test to date, Kentucky smothered a top-tier Louisville squad inside the vaunted Yum! Center. Only once all season, during a double overtime game at Texas A&M, did Kentucky’s win probability, the likelihood at any point in a game that they would win, dip below 50%. Kentucky wins, they win comfortably, and they usually look impressive in the process.
Kentucky is also loaded with talent. McDonald’s All-Americans status seems to be a pre-requisite for playing in Lexington. Unfortunately, due to their “platoon” style, no single Wildcat has played more than 65% of available minutes. For comparison, Player of the Year contenders Frank Kaminsky, Jahlil Okafor, and Delon Wright spend more than 75% of every game on the court.
While Kentucky won’t bring home any individual awards this season, we can use NBA Draft analysis as a serviceable gauge of player talent. Draft Express has four Wildcats in their top 25 prospect rankings, including three likely lottery picks, and five players in the top 50. CBS Sports ranks an astounding seven Wildcats among their top 45 prospects, with five potential first-round picks. It would take a good deal of luck for this team to break the all-time record of five first-round picks (held by 2010 Kentucky, naturally), but netting even four first-round picks – the most likely scenario at this point – puts them in the conversation about most talented team ever.
So they look good, and the players have talent. What do the numbers tell us? Ken Pomeroy tracks and analyzes play-by-play data for every Division I team dating back to the 2002 season. He measures teams’ efficiency based on number of possessions, rather than average by game, giving us an effective standard for in-season and year-to-year comparison. (Check out kenpom.com, and subscribe for next to nothing. If you like college basketball and/or math, you won’t regret it!) Ken’s formula rates Kentucky .9822 and #1 to this point of the season. For context, last year’s highest rated team was Louisville at .9520. The highest rated team in the site’s history is 2008 champion Kansas at .9753. The ratings adjust daily and can dramatically change between now and April, but Kentucky’s current number is mind-boggling. The Wildcats’ Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating is also the best of any team in the Kenpom Era and by a wide margin. Kentucky fields what is easily the tallest team in the nation and it shows. The Wildcats block 20% of opponent’s shot attempts and lead the nation in 2-point shooting percentage defense.
So how good is Kentucky? The answer today is that they’re as good as any team we’ve seen in at least a decade. They’ve looked unbeatable against very good teams. They have as much talent as any team to ever take the court, and the numbers put the Wildcats head-and-shoulder above this year’s field and rival champions of this era. Should Kentucky actually do the unthinkable and finish 40-0, they will set a new standard for the greatest team of all time. Even at 22-0, though, Pomeroy projects less than a 50% chance they finish the regular season undefeated, let alone conference and championship tournament. Conference road games are never guarantees, and Kentucky must face Georgia, Florida, and LSU in those formidable teams’ arenas. But as long as Coach Cal and his Wildcats cut down the nets in April, all evidence points to this team as the greatest of a generation.