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Kentucky's Relatively Weak Defense May Prevent Final Four Appearance

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

Looking statistically over the last 11 seasons of college basketball, it wouldn’t be a total anomaly for this year’s Kentucky team to make the Final Four. It seems far less likely, though, that the Wildcats could win the national championship if their defense doesn’t catch up to their offense.

This quick statistical look goes back 11 seasons because that’s as far back as KenPom.com’s database of advanced metrics reaches. His adjusted efficiencies for offense and defense serve as a quick-and-dirty look at how effective a team is. His adjusted efficiencies compute how many points a team would score or allow per 100 possessions against an average Division I opponent. That the statistics are tempo-free make it easier to compare teams than simply, say, points per game, since not every team plays at the same tempo.

Through this weekend’s games, Kentucky ranks No. 10 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (116.8) and No. 37 in adjusted defensive efficiency (96.5).

Of the 44 Final Four teams of the last 11 seasons, only six had a defense that ranked 37th or worse in their given season. None won a national championship, and only two advanced to the championship game (2011 Butler and 2013 Michigan). It’s also worth noting two of those teams had national players of the year—2003 Texas had T.J. Ford, and 2013 Michigan had Trey Burke.

If Kentucky’s defense weren’t to improve, it would be unprecedented for a team with such a low-ranked defense to win a championship. In the KenPom era, only one team with a defense outside the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency won the title: 2005 North Carolina, which had the top offense in the country and the 21st-ranked defense.

In the KenPom era, 10 of the 11 national champions were ranked in the top 20 in both offense and defense. So far in college basketball this season, five teams are in the top 20 in both offense and defense:

Villanova (No. 8 adjusted offensive efficiency, No. 20 adjusted defensive efficiency)

Florida (No. 9 AdjO, No. 9 DefO)

Wichita State (No. 16 AdjO, No. 13 AdjD)

Louisville (No. 17 AdjO, No. 7 AdjD)

Syracuse (No. 20 AdjO, No. 12 AdjD)

With unbalanced teams, the data didn’t favor teams to make it to the Final Four more or less if offense or defense was better. The sample size is relatively small, but it’s still worth noting that balanced teams are more likely to advance in to college basketball’s biggest stage (and thrive once they get there) than teams with considerable weaknesses.

Kentucky (21-6) plays host to Arkansas (18-9) at Rupp Arena Thursday at 7 p.m. The game is on ESPN.

Photo: UK players wait to check into a game earlier this season/James Pennington