Is Kentucky Basketball A Deserving NCAA Title Favorite?

Another year, another loaded class of freshmen in the Kentucky basketball program for John Calipari. The Wildcats are sitting on a 15-2 record with three of the top four players being freshman and the other being a sophomore. Calipari’s success with this—his NCAA title with all freshman in 2012 and his Final Four trips of 2014-15 with mostly young teams, mean the betting market is unmoved by Kentucky’s lack of experience. UK may be sixth in the polls, but they're first in the hearts of Las Vegas—a 9-2 betting favorite to win the national championship in April.

Is Big Blue really a worthy frontrunner though? They’ve already dropped games to UCLA and Louisville. The loss to the Bruins came at home and the defeat to the Cards was a non-cover, a 73-70 loss as a short (+2) road underdog. And while betting Kentucky has been a moneymaker, they don’t cover the number at the same clip they win basketball games—the ATS performance is 12-5. It’s enough to make a college basketball bettor if the market isn’t just a little bit ahead of itself when it comes to the Wildcats.

It’s not hard to see why bettors value Kentucky. They have a genuine star in Malik Monk, who averages 22ppg and is lights-out from three-point range. Monk electrified the entire country when he dropped 47 on North Carolina, a 103-100 win that marks the team’s high point this season. Isaiah Briscoe and De’Aron Fox are a well-balanced backcourt. They can score, combining for 32ppg. They can both pass, averaging ten assists per game collectively. And they both go to the glass, with a combined nine rebounds a night.

Nor is Kentucky lacking in the post. Edrice Adebayo goes 6’10” and averages 13 points/7 rebounds per game. So we have a team that is well-balanced, has a clear go-to star, a head coach with a proven record of success and kids that are still highly likely to improve between now and March.

So what’s not to like? Well, the defensive performance needs to improve. Kentucky ranks 13th nationally on defense—hardly a bad showing, but a bit below the level they’ll need to be at to win a national championship. And the depth could be a little bit better.

That’s nitpicking to be sure, but when a team is a decided 9-2 favorite in a sport whose postseason is so renowned for upsets they call it “Madness”, handicappers need to be fussy. These next two Saturdays provide good test cases to watch Kentucky’s continued development.

The Wildcats host South Carolina this Saturday, with the Gamecocks emerging as a darkhorse contender in the SEC. The following Saturday is another high-profile national game, this one against Kansas, in Rupp Arena. Looking ahead to February, there’s two big games with another good conference foe in Florida.

I’m interested to see if Calipari can get his team to up the defensive performance a notch. I’m curious to see how role players—notably Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis, who can provide key depth in the post—come along. Kentucky can certainly win an NCAA title in March and might deserve to be the favorite. I’m just not sure they’re there just yet.

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