Photo via Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky’s Historically Easy Path to the Final Four
A week-and-a-half ago, the entire college basketball nation sat back and watched the bracket get pieced together, alphabetically. One of the main takeaways? Man, Kentucky really got screwed. With Arizona and Virginia in the top half of its bracket, it appeared #BBN was going to have a tough time getting back to the Sweet 16, let alone the Final Four.
And then the games actually started.
Thursday: 6-seed Miami (FL) went down at the buzzer to Loyola-Chicago. Then, just hours after Kentucky got by Davidson that same night, the Wildcats watched Pac-12 champion and 4-seed Arizona lose by 21 to Buffalo, clearing Zona out of the way for UK.
Friday: The first 16-seed defeated a 1-seed when Virginia lost by 20 points to UMBC, eliminating the top-seed in the tournament and Kentucky’s clearest remaining competition to making the second weekend.
Saturday: Loyola-Chicago won again, removing SEC rival and 3-seed Tennessee from the South Region.
Sunday: 2-seed Cincinnati blew a 22-point lead to Nevada.
To recap: The Wildcats’ bracket no longer has its 1-seed, 2-seed, 3-seed, 4-seed or 6-seed.
In the first two rounds of this year’s tournament, nine teams listed as an underdog of four points or more pulled off the the upset. Four of those nine teams were in Kentucky’s region, and no other region had more than two upsets of that caliber.
So … if the Wildcats were to cruise through 9-seed Kansas State in the Sweet 16 and then beat the winner of the 11-7 matchup between Loyola-Chicago/Nevada in the Elite Eight, how unprecedentedly easy would this run for the Cats be? Let’s use point spread data to answer that question.
As a means of judging the strength of competition a team faced on its way to the Final Four, I examined the average point spreads for all teams with a 3-seed or higher to make it to the Final Four. The higher the spread, the easier the path. It turns out, only three of those 33 teams had an average point spread of more than -5 through the four games en route to the Final Four:
So how does this compare to Kentucky? The Cats closed as a 4.5-point favorite in the First Round against Davidson, a 5.5-point favorite in the Second Round vs. Buffalo and are currently listed as 5.5-point favorite against Kansas State.
According to BetLabs’ Bracket Simulator, John Calipari & Co. are projected to be a 6-point favorite against Loyola-Chicago or a 5.5-point favorite against Nevada in the Elite Eight. According to the simulations, Kentucky has a 63% chance to beat Kansas State in the Sweet 16, followed by either a 62% chance to beat Nevada or a 66% chance to beat Loyola-Chicago in the Elite Eight.
If Kentucky is able to hold serve, Calipari will be making his seventh trip to the Final Four (don’t talk to me about vacated games). In his previous six trips, Calipari has gone to the Final Four as a 1-seed four times, along with once as a 4-seed and once as an 8-seed. When comparing his two trips as a 4-seed or higher, the point spreads clearly indicate an easier path for the Wildcats.
Long story short: If the Wildcats go to the Final Four, it’d mark the fourth-easiest road for a 3-seed or higher.
Kentucky, the path is clear; now all you have to do is win.