Can Kentucky Be Perfect?

By Julian Ryan

Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats are primed for a run at greatness this season. With a deluge of McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster, Coach Cal has been dominating with his platoon system, and even the loss of likely first rounder Alex Poythress cannot slow them down. After surviving their likely toughest regular season test on the road against Louisville, there has been serious talk that Kentucky could be the first team from a power conference to go undefeated in the regular season since the legendary 1976 Hoosiers team (UNLV, Wichita State and others were from decidedly weaker conferences). The SEC is not the ACC, but it is still an elite conference, ranked as 5th best in the nation. Postseason aside, can Kentucky produce a perfect season?

As the near defeat against Ole Miss showed, even though Kentucky will be favored in every game, upsets are a real possibility. In shortened college basketball games there are fewer possessions and enough randomness that Kentucky’s superior quality might not show through every time. To estimate their chances of a perfect season, I looked at ratings for Kentucky and their future opponents based on a simple rating system (SRS), ESPN’s BPI, and Adjusting for home and away we get the following probabilities of entering the Tournament 31-0:


Probability of Undefeated Regular Season







Kentucky’s close call against Ole Miss showed their fragility and both BPI and Kenpom have downgraded their strength ratings. SRS abjectly only considers point differential and strength of schedule and probably overstates Kentucky’s chances by failing to account for regression to the mean. Kentucky has been really good so far, but also probably better than its true talent level. This over exuberance is probably also why ESPN pundits are saying the Wildcats will go undefeated. Using the BPI and Kenpom models, we can simulate the rest of the season 1000 times and see the distribution of their regular season win total:


Both models agree that losing exactly one game is the most likely result for the Cats, with two or three total losses also a realistic possibility. This isn’t to argue that Kentucky isn’t the best team in college basketball, at least since Anthony Davis’ Kentucky team and indeed perhaps they’re even stronger than that team due to their phenomenal depth (though that 2011-12 squad did have an absurd six players drafted into the NBA, with four in the first round). But to win every game, you just need a lot of luck. Random things happen – teams make too many threes, referees make blunders – and you need to be good and lucky to be perfect.

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