Contrary to popular perception (or at least my perception of popular perception), Tubby Smith's 2006-07 Kentucky team is an excellent shooting team that struggles to guard their opponents. Of course, Kentucky went out and beat Villanova in atypical fashion last night. A solid defensive performance made up for their field goal shooting being merely adequate rather than outstanding.
The 0.94 points per possession Kentucky allowed last night marked the first good defensive performance (less than one point allowed per possession) from the Wildcats since they held Florida to 0.95 points per possession in Rupp Arena ten games ago. Extending Kentucky's defensive slump, in the two games preceding that Florida game, the Wildcats allowed 1.24 points per possession to South Carolina, and 1.09 points per possession @Arkansas. (It should also be noted that when Kentucky visited Florida, the Gators shot 73 eFG% and rebounded half of their misses en route to scoring 1.29 points per possession.)
KENTUCKY DEFENSE v. KANSAS OFFENSE
(at-risk games only)
Kentucky's at-risk profile includes home wins over Miami, OH, Eastern Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee (without Chris Lofton), neutral court wins over DePaul, Chattanooga, Alabama, and Villanova, road wins over Louisville, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Arkansas, home losses to Vanderbilt and Florida, neutral court losses to UCLA, Memphis, and Mississippi State, and road losses to North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Florida.
With the exception of the game against Tennessee (again, without Lofton) at home, Kentucky's outstanding defensive performances (less than 0.9 points per possession allowed) in at-risk games all occurred in mid-January or earlier: Miami, OH, vs. Chattanooga, Indiana, @Louisville, and @South Carolina.
Kentucky's defensive numbers have been helped by their opponents' poor free throw shooting. They allowed 1.04 points per possession in SEC play despite their conference opponents shooting just 62.7% from the free throw line. This is the rare instance where a typical performance at the free throw line from the Jayhawks could hurt their opponent.
It may not matter, though, as Kentucky's performance in the other three factors are what have kept them slightly below average defensively. Kansas's penchant for making a good percentage of their field goal attempts and rebounding a high percentage of their missed shots should trouble a Kentucky team who isn't very good at forcing misses and just adequate at protecting their defensive glass. Against Kansas these tendencies may be magnified if Kentucky continues to struggle to force turnovers.
KENTUCKY OFFENSE v. KANSAS DEFENSE
(at-risk games only)
Kentucky's offense performed quite similarly to Kansas's in at-risk games. The Wildcats make a few more shots and rebound a lower percentage of their misses. The frequency with which they turn the ball over will necessitate that they make a typical percentage of their field goals. That's extremely difficult to do against Kansas. Kentucky has a shot at doing so, though, as Sheray Thomas is the only player in the Wildcat rotation to shoot less than 50 eFG% or score less than 1.07 PPWS.
There's littel doubt that NBA free agent Randolph Morris will test Sasha Kaun defensively. If Kaun continues to establish good defensive position and let the double-teamer harass the opposition's best post scorer, Kansas can be expected to limit Morris's effectiveness. Though he's Kentucky's best scorer (both in terms of volume and efficiency) Morris is not a particularly good passer (2.4 A/100 against 4.7 TO/100) so effective double-teams in the post could cause Kentucky's offense to stagnate.
On the perimeter, Kansas's guards will need to refrain from gambling for turnovers against Kentucky's guards, instead forcing them into the heart of the KU defense for difficult field goal attempts. Ramel Bradley (5.0 TO/100) and Derrick Jasper (6.0 TO/100), especially, will probably turn the ball over often enough due to the basic ball pressure and swarming interior defense Kansas typically musters.
Bradley, Joe Crawford, and Jodie Meeks combine to take half their shots from beyond the three-point arc, making 37.2, 35.3, and 36.5% of those shots respectively. The guard trio troubles defenses because they are quite good at converting the two-point shots they attempt as well. Crawford shoots 52.6% inside the arc, Meeks makes 50.5% of his two-point shots, and Bradley converts on 49% of his attempts.
Kentucky's balanced and efficient offense will test Kansas's outstanding defense. The Wildcats are capable of getting hot enough that the opposing defense can effectively cease to be relevant for stretches of a game. What should encourage Kansas fans is that the Jayhawks have survived such performances from Texas each of the last two weekends. For all Kevin Durant did in the first halves of those games, Kansas held Texas 2% below their season average offensive efficiency in Lawrence, and 8% below their season average offensive efficiency in Oklahoma City.
Kentucky isn't as good offensively as Texas (though they're probably an equal amount better defensively than the Longhorns) so supressing their offense by 6-8% would put them far enough behind Kansas's expected offensive efficiency against a mediocre defense to keep the game from coming down to the final possessions.
Prediction: Kansas 73 Kentucky 62