NCAA Basketball Championship Preview: Analysis Points to Wildcat Win

Two years ago NBC Sports had one big question about Value Add: “[H]ow (is) Shabazz Napier the 11th most valuable player in the country?"

“I’m not going to nitpick at the numbers too much,” the sports site continued. “This really is some terrific work by Pudner…and who knows, maybe Shabazz Napier actually is more valuable to UConn than Kidd-Gilchrist is to Kentucky.” As much as Napier has vindicated Value Add in the two years since this post--a just completed Value Add study of how much 2,629 past freshman have improved is pointing toward the Kentucky freshman for the title.

The UConn team that will take the court Monday night has a better combined Value Add than the Kentucky team without Willie Cauley-Stein by a 31.25 to 23.42 margin.

Landmark Study Shows Freshman Improve 102%--Great News for Kentucky Monday

However, the updated Value Add database of all seasons from 2003 to 2014 enabled a study this weekend of the 2,629 players who have played sufficient minutes for the same team their freshman through senior year. This study is a major breakthrough for projecting player improvement. The average player improved his Value Add 102 percent from his freshman to sophomore year, but then the improvement slows dramatically after that as shown on this table:

Study of 2629 players Ave Value Add Projected improvement
Freshman 0.67 102%
Sophomore 1.35 31%
Junior 1.76 18%
Senior 2.09 0%

One note is that even players with a Value Add of 0.00 improve an average of 0.46, while only 10 percent of players improve more than 2.10 total points in Value Add, so while using the table above to project the next season, we will limit the range of improvement from 0.46 to 2.10 if the percent increase would improve them outside that range.

Kentucky Improves Much More Than UConn

The ramifications for Kentucky’s freshman-dominated team are dramatic. To some degree, freshman are now sophomores after a full season, and sophomores are juniors. While Kentucky’s Value Adds only add up to 23.42, their freshman dominated roster has them projected to be 11.41 points better, while UConn only projects to improve 5.26 with their top three players being juniors and seniors who have likely already peaked.

Kentucky Wildcats 2014 Value Add Class Proj Improve New Value
Julius Randle 6.85 Fr +102% 2.10 8.95
Willie Cauley-Stein (inj) 6.58 So +31% 2.04 8.62
Aaron Harrison 5.48 Fr +102% 2.10 7.58
James Young 4.57 Fr +102% 2.10 6.67
Dakari Johnson 2.18 Fr +102% 2.10 4.28
Andrew Harrison 1.74 Fr +102% 1.77 3.51
Alex Poythress 2.55 So +31% 0.79 3.34
Dominique Hawkins 0.00 Fr +102% 0.46 0.46
Jarrod Polson 0.05 Sr + 0% 0.03 0.03
Total not counting W C-S 23.42   11.46 34.83

Julius Randle was in the top 1 percent of all players for 2014 as a whole, but he would project to have an All-American level Value Add of 8.95. Aaron Harrison would improve from 5.48 to 7.58, and Dakari Johnson would be even better than his new 4.28 number when you consider he is now getting most of the minutes with Cauley-Stein out. That leaves a new Value Add of 34.83 even without Cauley-Stein or accounting for Johnson being higher due to taking more minutes with Cauley-Stein out.

And here are UConn’s much more modest improvements.

UConn Huskies 2014 Value Add Class Proj Improve New Value
Shabazz Napier 10.70 Sr + 0% 0.00 10.70
DeAndre Daniels 5.09 Jr +18% 0.92 6.01
Ryan Boatright 4.28 Jr +18% 0.77 5.05
Amida Brimah 2.76 Fr +102% 2.10 4.86
Niels Giffey 4.47 Sr + 0% 0.00 4.47
Phillip Nolan 1.13 So +31% 0.46 1.59
Lasan Kromah 1.41 Sr + 0% 0.00 1.41
Terrence Samuel 0.54 Fr +102% 0.55 1.09
Tyler Olander 0.87 Sr + 0% 0.00 0.87
Omar Calhoun 0.00 So +31% 0.46 0.46
Total   31.25   5.26 36.51

While these projections still leave UConn with a very slight Projected Value Add edge of less than two points (36.51 to 34.83) that would probably be more than made up by Johnson’s extra minutes with Cauley-Stein out.

In addition, I first pointed out two years ago in a Cracked Sidewalks post that, “The only players who get ‘cheated’ by value add are players with four or more potential NBA-level players, and this year that means anyone who plays for UNC or Kentucky."

8 NBA Players Splitting Time Holds Down Kentucky's Value Add

This year Kentucky has EIGHT projected NBA players – no one else in the country has more than four. To site NBC’s example, Napier was more valuable than Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012 because when you “replaced” Kidd-Gilchrist it was to bring another NBA prospect like Darius Miller or Doron Lamb off the bench. Napier could almost never rest because that meant bringing in a marginal player like Niels Giffey and forcing Ryan Boatright to be the only ball handler on the court.

Kentucky is once again the only team that has future NBA players dividing minutes on the bench--and that makes their overall Value Add rating lower than it should be.

A team full of players about to go to the NBA is the hardest to pick in the tournament. Many have lost in the opening weekend as they think ahead to the NBA draft. However, if they are focused they can simply start to overwhelm opponents physically. Historically teams have needed three or more future NBA players to win the title.

DeAndre Daniels has stepped up and gives UConn a second likely NBA player in addition to Napier, and Boatright completes a fantastic backcourt but is probably not an NBA-level player. Even with Cauley-Stein out, Kentucky has seven future NBA players that could physically wear down UConn.

My guess is UConn was hoping Wisconsin would knock off Kentucky, just like Wisconsin was hoping Michigan would do it, Michigan was hoping Louisville would do it, Louisville was hoping Wichita State would do it, and Wichita State was hoping K-State would do it. I’ve been covering Napier’s magic for a long time including noting that he was the best player in the tournament when it began, but to do this would be a true David vs. Goliath along the lines of the Villanova or NC State title.

Kentucky just looks like they are too big and have too much for UConn to get all the way through 40 minutes. If they do, then even I will have underestimated Napier after two years of believing he could do just about anything.


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