It’s Time to Stop Assuming Kentucky Will Make the Final Four
Mar 17, 2018; Boise, ID, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) reacts during the second half against the Buffalo Bulls during the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Taco Bell Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports
As a nation, we’ve already crowned Kentucky. You may have heard: Virginia lost, Cincinnati lost, Tennessee lost and Arizona lost. We looked at the remaining draw — and saw the seeds — and we’ve called it. We apologized to Sister Jean in the process.
The small conversations you hear on television or people have around the water-cooler (or whatever the new version of that is? The fancy hydration system?) … they all lead to the same conclusion. Kentucky will represent the South Region in the Final Four.
But why did we crown the Wildcats? Apparently, it’s because they beat Davidson and Buffalo. Truly the titans of the sport. Never mind the fact that Kentucky was able to defeat both teams solely by using their incredible athletic advantage. The Wildcats didn’t make a single 3-pointer against Davidson, because they didn’t need to.
We also probably crowned them region champion because they’re Kentucky, and they aren’t called Alabama Tech or some other made-up name (apologies to Alabama Tech alums if I’m wrong … great institution). It’s also probably because we see the Wildcats’ incredible freshman talent and think this is just like any other Kentucky team. Even I’ve been prone to saying their ceiling is high as recently as a few weeks ago.
But I think this has gotten a little out of control. Here’s what I mean.
For starters, all three remaining teams in the South region (Kansas State, Loyola-Chicago, Nevada) pose much greater challenges to the Wildcats than Davidson or Buffalo did. Not only are they all more talented, but they can help negate Kentucky’s athletic advantage, which turns things into a much more traditional basketball game (instead of Kentucky getting to the basket 100% of the time on any drive, for a dunk).
Buffalo’s breakneck pace (top 20 in the country) was actually its undoing because the Bulls couldn’t run with future NBA talent. Davidson’s 118th-ranked defense couldn’t hold up in the half court (and Bob McKillop’s Wildcats couldn’t make many 3s, which they have to do in order to win). The remaining teams are either better suited to score with Kentucky (Nevada has a significantly better offensive efficiency), or have much, much stronger half-court defenses that can make the Wildcats work (Loyola and Kansas State are both bottom 50 in pace and top 30 in adjusted defense).
In short, Kentucky’s next game (and the game after that one, and the game after that one) will not be like its previous two games were. That doesn’t mean the Wildcats will lose, but it means the cakewalk that is being perpetuated is untrue.
We can also examine this from a spread/results standpoint. Kentucky closed as just a 5.5-point favorite against mighty Davidson, and as a 4.5-5 point favorite against mighty Buffalo. Now, the Wildcats are a 5.5-6-point favorite against a Kansas State team that is far superior to Buffalo? Seems wrong. The line is being stretched due to perception.
Meanwhile, on the other half of the bracket, Loyola just defeated Tennessee, which was Kentucky’s best win of the last three weeks as well. Nevada’s comeback win over Cincinnati is the best win (in terms of opponent) that any team in the region has had in a month. There is nothing here that suggests the gap between these teams is that great.
And that may present an opportunity.
First off, the Kansas State line is seemingly a point or two too high. Next, look at the futures prices. The field (all three other teams) are -107 vs. Kentucky to win the region. The greatest discrepancy is in the title odds, where Kentucky is around 8-1, and the other three teams come in at 66-1 (Nevada, Kansas State) and 100-1 (Loyola). Knowing what we know about the relative equality of the teams, you tell me where the value is?
Like with most futures, this is NOT about predicting the winner. This is about looking at a relatively even playing field and taking the best prices. Kentucky may win the region, but the likelihood that the Wildcats doing so is not as great as the prices would indicate. However, when the likelihood that the other three teams win the region is greater than the prices indicate, that’s when I make bets.
Helping matters is that this region is on the left side of the bracket, meaning the Final Four potential opponent is much worse as well. While the South winner (let’s say, because of the point of this article, it’s Nevada) gets to play Michigan or Gonzaga, on the other side Duke, Villanova, Kansas, Texas Tech and Purdue (and even West Virginia) are all battling it out for the other spot. You could make the argument every one of those teams is better than Michigan and Gonzaga. Because the opponents in the South are not nearly as tough, the longshot futures in that region gain even more value.
In short, I can’t tell you with certainty which of the three teams to take vs. Kentucky. They all make great cases. My vote would probably be for Kansas State. What I’m telling you for sure is that there’s an opportunity here, and whether you go with the blanket fade (field prop) or take a chance on a longer price (futures), or just bet game-to-game, Kentucky is being over-valued right now. How you want to play that is up to you.
Top photo: Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports