It’s almost an annual right of passage that, at some point each spring, someone brings up the question of whether the best NCAA team could beat the worst NBA team. Last Sunday, that someone was Charles Barkley, who opined on CBS after Kentucky’s easy win over Baylor in the regional final that the Wildcats could beat the Toronto Raptors. Why Barkley picked on the poor Raptors, who had just taken the NBA’s best team to overtime the night before and have a better record than three Eastern Conference teams, is unclear. The message spread virally nonetheless, until a bemused Stan Van Gundy (which is, of course, the best Stan Van Gundy) tried to end it before last night’s Orlando Magic game.
“Look, it’s absurd,” Van Gundy told reporters. “I mean, people will say, ‘Oh, Kentucky you know’s got four NBA players.’ Yeah, well the other team’s got 13.”
Maybe Van Gundy’s response is all this meme deserves; the advantages for any NBA team in this scenario are patently obvious. Nonetheless, I decided to take it seriously. Using my NCAA-to-NBA translations, adjusted to remove the year of aging NBA rookies get credit for, I projected stats for the seven players in the Wildcats’ rotation. Then, with John Calipari’s two years as head coach of the New Jersey Nets serving as team context at the defensive end, I plugged Kentucky into SCHOENE’s projections as a 31st NBA team. The results were not pretty. According to SCHOENE, the Wildcats would average 81.1 points per game and surrender 105.6, far and away the worst margin in NBA history.
Based on player translations, the presence of one Anthony Davis and Calipari’s history, SCHOENE observes that Kentucky would be competent at the defensive end, though still worst in the league. On offense, however, the Wildcats project as scoring 15.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than anyone else in the NBA, a stat that will not be part of National Kentucky’s Offense is Even Better Than its Defense Month.
The same balance that makes the Wildcats tough for NCAA foes to stop would work against in the NBA; nobody on the roster projects as using more than 15.4 percent of his team’s plays at the pro level, which means the adjustment in SCHOENE that forces usage to equal 100 percent for teams devastates already middling efficiency. In particular, point guard Marquis Teague would struggle if forced to play against NBA opponents every night, with a projected 1.35 assist-to-turnover ratio. Aside from Davis, the shooting percentages we project for the roster as part of their NBA stats are ugly:
Player PPG RPG APG FG%
Anthony Davis 14.5 11.8 1.2 .482
Doron Lamb 13.0 3.1 1.6 .349
Terrence Jones 13.0 8.6 1.6 .379
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 11.8 8.7 2.1 .370
Darius Miller 10.1 3.2 2.5 .368
Marquis Teague 9.6 2.9 5.4 .310
Kyle Wiltjer 9.2 4.1 0.9 .322
Would this team win a game? Using Pythagorean expectations, yes. Over the 66-game season, we’d expect them to win 1.6 games–though surely there would be times NBA Kentucky would go 0-66. Most likely, a win would come at the hands of the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. Based on the Wildcats’ projected .024 Pythagorean winning percentage and the Bobcats’ actual .124 Pythagorean mark, the log5 method says Kentucky would win about one out of seven games head-to-head. Against Toronto, that same expectation is one in 23 games. And against Chicago, it’s one in 143, which makes it more lopsided than a 1-16 matchup.
So the Wildcats could beat an NBA team, but it’s not especially likely, even in a simulation that generally makes favorable assumptions. I didn’t penalize Kentucky at all for depth, which is the biggest obstacle to this entire question. Calipari can use a seven-man rotation with occasional contributions from Eloy Vargas over 40-minute college games without any real injuries. (Terrence Jones, with two, is the only ‘Cat regular to miss a game.) Doing the same over 66 games and 48 minutes a night is a different issue, and Kentucky doesn’t have another player outside the top eight who has seen more than 44 minutes of action all season. By contrast, even deep Charlotte reserve Cory Higgins, a rookie who might be the worst player in the NBA this year, averaged 32.2 minutes per game for a good Colorado team as a senior.
The numbers confirm what we already suspected: the best college teams just don’t compare to the worst the NBA has to offer.