The Kentucky Wildcats enter this week’s NCAA tournament a perfect 34-0. Coach Cal’s crew is dominating opponents, winning their games by an average of 20.9 PPG.
While most of the games have been obliterations, some have been much closer than the final score indicated. These young Wildcats have showed resolve in crunch time, especially the Harrison twins. Time after time, they’ve come out of a tough contest on the winning end.
Kentucky is in the midst of a legendary season, one of which we haven’t seen the likes of since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. The two teams couldn’t be more contrasting, though. That Hoosiers squad was a veteran, senior-laden roster, led by senior forward Scott May, and coached by the chair-flinging, ever-polarizing Bobby Knight. This Kentucky team consists of mainly underclassmen and is led by…well, no one really. Andrew Harrison would probably be the guy you could point to if you had to pick their one leader; but that is decided on more of a game-to-game basis with this team.
With so many talented players on the roster, the sentiment is, “play well or sit”. There are no guaranteed minutes. Carl-Anthony Towns is most likely going to be a top-five pick when he enters the NBA draft, and he plays just 20 minutes per game.
What makes Kentucky so good is their versatility. One night, the Harrison brothers can beat you from the outside, and then the next night, Willie Cauley-Stein and Carl-Anthony Towns can dominate you in the paint. It’s a ‘pick-your-poison’ situation with this Wildcat team.
One cannot forget the coach, John Calipari. He couldn’t be more different from Bobby Knight. He’s charismatic, smooth talking, and a master recruiter. (I contend that he was an illustrious used car salesman in a previous life.) He is also polarizing; but the negativity is derived from jealousy. Cal just keeps on winning. It looks like they’re nearly unstoppable this year. With that in mind, I want to examine who, or what, could stand in the way of this team.
Duke: The Blue Devils are once again a #1 seed. This might just be Coach K’s most athletic roster ever, led by freshman man-child Jahlil Okafor and senior guard Quinn Cook. Duke seems like the team that has the biggest shot at knocking off Kentucky. Okafor is a monster on the low block, and he’s terrorized NCAA big men all season. He creates mismatches by forcing double-teams and freeing up shooters.
Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones make up one of the best backcourts in college basketball. They can both handle the ball, distribute, knock down perimeter jumpers, and they both shoot over 86% from the free throw line. Justice Winslow is probably their most important piece. He is clearly their best athlete, and he is also their most versatile player on offense and defense. He plays 3 positions for Duke and allows them to go big or small at any time.
Duke also has a chance against Kentucky because they score a ton of points – over 80 PPG this season. To beat Kentucky and their tremendous defense, you have to be able to put up points.
Here’s where the case for Duke gets shaky. The Blue Devils play only eight players, three of which don’t log many minutes. So if Cook, Okafor, Winslow, or Jones get into foul trouble, it’ll be “bye-bye Dukies!”
Wisconsin: Bo Ryan’s club might be the most talented in the school’s history. Frank Kaminsky is one of the premier players in all of college basketball. His ability to score inside and outside makes this Wisconsin offense extremely versatile. Wisconsin is also one of the best passing teams in the nation. Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker play a hybrid 4 for the badgers and their big-to-big passing is exquisite. The Badgers play great team defense as well and they are very experienced – something that is rare in today’s college hoops.
These two teams played one of the best games in last year’s tournament, with Kentucky getting a late three pointer from Aaron Harrison to go out on top 74-73. Obviously, Wisconsin would love to get its revenge. They have the talent and experience to challenge Kentucky, but it just so happens that this year’s version of the Wildcats is much better than last year’s.
Wisconsin has also been without senior guard Traevon Jackson, who is vital to their success. With the uncertainty of Jackson’s availability, I can’t see the Badgers beating this UK juggernaut.
Arizona: The other Wildcats, the ones from Arizona, have possibly the best shot. This is a very complete basketball team. They have size and talent inside with Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Ashley was missed last season, after the forward went down with a season-ending foot injury. This year, the junior forward has put his best foot forward (see what I did there) and is averaging 12 PPG and 5 RPG. He was named the MOP of the Pac-12 tournament.
TJ McConnell is the leader of this squad. The 5th-year senior does a little bit of everything for the Wildcats, and many thought he should have been Pac-12 player of the year. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson set this team apart. Their athleticism on the wings allow Arizona to extend defensively and run in transition. As the youngest player in the starting lineup, Stanley Johnson is also the most talented and the team’s leading scorer. In order to beat Kentucky, he would have to play at the top of his game.
This is the best team of head coach Sean Miller’s coaching career. I believe if anyone can beat Kentucky, it will be Arizona.
Kentucky: What?!?! Kentucky? Yes, Kentucky. Let’s be honest, this is their tournament to lose. They are the overwhelming favorite and have the most talent by a large margin. It’s sad to say that if they don’t end the season cutting down the nets, this season will be looked at as a failure for them – not by me, but by many; especially “Big Blue Nation”. If they play to their best, they will win it all. So by that logic, only Kentucky can beat Kentucky. Who knows? Maybe I’m completely wrong and they’ll lose on a buzzer-beater to Valparaiso.
Officiating: The officiating in college basketball is suspect to say the least. The block/charge call has become completely bogus. If a player on defense screams and hits the deck with some contact, it’s going to be called a charge. With only five personal fouls to give, a player has to be extremely judicial on how he makes contact. We see this happen in every tournament. One or two bad calls benches a key player for long stretches of time.
While Kentucky is deep, possibly the deepest team we’ve seen in decades, there are a couple of players they can’t do without. Namely, Andrew Harrison – “Mr. Clutch” for the ‘Cats, whom they will surely need in any close game. The other would be Carl-Anthony Towns, whose inside presence on offense is something the other Kentucky bigs don’t bring to the table. So a few bad foul calls, and their dreams of perfection could be extinguished.
The College 3-Point Line: Ahh, it’s the great equalizer in NCAA basketball. It’s the only way a Cinderella can get by a powerhouse team. The three point line in the college game is a true arc. Unlike the NBA three point line, which is shorter in the corners and longer at the top of the key, the true arc allows shooters the same quality look at anywhere on the floor.
Step 1 for an upset is for the better team has to have an “off” night. Step 2, usually, is for the underdog to make a ton of 3’s. With Kentucky’s inside defensive presence from their plethora of big men, this seems like the only way to do them in offensively. It happens every year in the tournament, and it could happen to Kentucky this year.
Single Elimination Format: Last, but not least. This is my “overall #1 seed” of reasons why Kentucky will come up short of a historic run. The “one and done” nature of the tournament is what makes the tournament so great. It is also the reason the “best” team doesn’t always win it. If this were a best-of-5 playoff, you could just call off the tourney now. You could take the trophy and ship it to Lexington, Kentucky, because no team is beating Kentucky more than once.
Since the tournament is single elimination, so many factors can play against you in 40 minutes of basketball. A twisted ankle, the flu, an “off” shooting night, bad officiating, the other team catching fire from three – any of these things can end you. If your team loses focus for just five minutes, it can be over. A bad shooting night from the free throw line, which have hindered Calipari’s teams in the past, can end you as well. This most recently happened in last year’s championship game, when the Wildcats shot 13-24 at the line.
Now, we wait. We wait to see if the nation’s best team can make history. I believe they will finish off this historic run. For all the Kentucky haters out there, this list is most likely all you have to cling on to. The reality is that Kentucky is just much better than everyone else. At the end of the day, it’s just that simple.