Friday, March 30 at 4:00 PM ET
The concept is quite simple and the answer does not have to be arbitrary. Would the Washington Wizards, the NBA's youngest team and weekly Not Top 10 fodder, win over this year's Kentucky Wildcats? Yes, but it may be closer than one may expect.
Under the premise of this question as originally proposed by Kevin Sheehan of ESPN 980 in Washington D.C. to former Maryland head coach Gary Williams (and then discussed by just about everyone else in the country since then), the game may be even closer than most would think. At Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY (with 20,000+ fans presumably all rooting on UK and any advantage John Wall gains by being a former Wildcat ignored) with Washington playing the third game of a back-to-back-to-back with its current roster and Kentucky only needing to play this one game for 40 minutes under college rules, Washington would win 70.2% of the time and by an average score of 85-73.
There is a way to as accurately as possible handle this debate. Every offseason for every sport for which we project professional games, I spend a great deal of time utilizing objective information to project what a player will look like at the next level given what he has done before. We are doing this for the NFL right now. So, what I usually do in May and June for basketball, I moved up a couple months to specifically analyze how Kentucky's players would look if projected into the NBA right now. Then, that roster was simulated against the current Wizards roster 50,000 times under the assumptions above.
While the point can easily be made that the Wizards have a roster full of NBA players and Kentucky only has 4-6 (depending on maturation of the current role players) NBA players, it's irrelevant. Only five players are on the court at any time and 96.1% of all of Kentucky's minutes on the season (99.3% in the last five game) have come from players who have NBA-caliber size and talent. Comparing the starting lineups, then, reveals some very interesting results.
The starting five for Washington (assuming all current players on roster are healthy) - John Wall, Jordan Crawford, Chris Singleton, Trevor Booker and Nene - averages 6'7", 222 lbs. and 24 years old. The starting five for Kentucky - Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis - averages 6'6.5", 221 lbs. and 19 years old (listed heights and weights used for what it's worth). Size is not the difference, while age, experience and what players are expected to do with that size later in their careers put Washington on top. Matching up each player in the rotation sees Washington win at only three out of the five positions. The Wizards have the better point guard (though it is close as neither Wall nor Teague is incredibly efficient), the better power forward and the better center. Despite Anthony Davis' future as the likely top overall draft choice in the NBA and Terrence Jones NBA frame and draft lottery potential, Trevor Booker and Nene would be expected to more than neutralize what typically are strengths for Kentucky by owning the rebound battle and presenting challenges inside on both ends of the court.
Where Kentucky can win is on the wings - and in similar ways to how other teams try to win over UK. Three point shooting is the great neutralizer in basketball. Not only does a team get an extra point for the shot, it is difficult to defend threes. Shooters are shooters no matter the level. And Kentucky is a significantly better outside shooting team than the Wizards would be expected to be, even on a college court. Unsung sophomore guard Doron Lamb, who may be the least likely future NBA player from the starting five, has the biggest matchup advantage of anyone going up against Jordan Crawford. Lamb is the same height, 15 pounds heavier and an incredibly more efficient offensively, shooting 47.1% from three and two and turning the ball over on just 8.7% of his possessions. As a pro, Crawford shoots just 27.4% from three (on 3.7 threes a game - what is he thinking?) and 44.9% from two, while turning the ball over on 13.3% of his possessions. At Xavier two years ago, he shot 39.1% from three and 50.1% from two and turned the ball over 11.4% of the time.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a freshman wing player for Kentucky, may be the second player drafted in the upcoming NBA draft. While I can verify now that he will not grade as the second best player in the draft in our objective analysis, he still wins the matchup with Chris Singleton of Washington. The players are the same size and everything that Singleton does well - defend and fill the stat sheet offensively - Kidd-Gilchrist does a little better, with more efficiency and as a bigger part of his team's gameplan. Singleton, a rookie out of Florida State, is such a great defender that it is not likely for Kidd-Gilchrist to dominate this matchup and put Kentucky on his shoulders en route to a win, but it is a matchup that can keep UK in the game.
At the end of their professional careers, if we look back at the peak seasons for Kentucky's starting five and compare them to the peak seasons from this Washington Wizards team, we will almost undoubtedly believe that the career years of Teague, Lamb, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones and Davis (and maybe even Miller and Wiltjer) would win handidly over the career years of Wall, Crawford, Singleton, Booker and Nene (and likely even Blatche, Seraphin, Mack, Lewis - which has already happened - and others). But right now, Washington, even under the most adverse circumstances we could put the Wizards in (at Rupp on no rest), would still be double digit favorites over Kentucky.
Taking the exercise a step further, Washington is not even the worst team in the NBA right now. That distinction belongs to the Charlotte Bobcats. However, even Charlotte, which would likely include a rotation of all of these players (who are each 25 or younger) - Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Derrick Brown, Tyrus Thomas, Bismack Biyombo, Byron Mullens and D.J. White - would be favored by at least double digits in every game on Kentucky's 2011-12 schedule (UK was favored by double digits in 24 of 38 games played). The same could be said for the worst NBA team in the last 15 years, the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets, which included a rotation of Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Terrence Williams, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Brook Lopez, Yi Jianlian and Kris Humphries (all but Harris were 23 or younger).
The closest matchup of a college team from the last 15 years hosting an NBA team from the last 15 years that has played back-to-back, would be the 2000-01 Duke Blue Devils - with Jay Williams, Chris Duhon, Mike Dunleavy, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Nate James - against those 2009-10 Nets.
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