March Madness: Beating the Wildcats
March Madness, aka the best time of the year in sports. For the next several weeks, basketball will take center stage, office pools will reign supreme, small schools you've never heard of will become household names, players will rise and fall on NBA draft boards minute by minute and pieces of paper are torn and set on fire at the end of each weekend. Isn't it great? This year should be no different from the glorious tournaments of the past few years, with one major exception; we already know the ending. If you have to ask what it is, then you haven't watched the Kentucky Wildcats play this year.
To say that Kentucky is a favorite to win it all this year isn't surprising; the college basketball powerhouse has been favored to win the National Championship almost every year ever since John Calipari resurrected the program in 2009. And yet this is different; armed with perhaps one of the talented teams in the history of college basketball, Calipari has led the Wildcats to a 34-0 record, winning by an average of twenty points a game while playing excellent two way ball. On top of that, they feature six potential NBA draft picks, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, two men who could potentially go as high as number one in the NBA Draft this spring. This isn't like Wichita State last year; this Kentucky team has a legitimate chance of going undefeated this spring, and should be the pick of any logical person filling out a bracket.
Which of course begs the question; can Kentucky actually go undefeated? Not only can they go undefeated, I believe they will; this team is merely too talented in all facets of the game to be overthrown by any team in this field of 68. But what's the fun in saying that? There has to be some team out there that has a shot right? Luckily, despite the fact that I don't see it happening, there are four teams out there that could, with a great game and a whole lot of luck, prevent the Wildcats from making history? Who are they? Let's rank the four teams from least to greatest.
If you had asked me earlier in the week, I would've put Virginia in this spot instead of the Blue Devils. The Cavaliers may not be as sexy historically as Coach K's group, but they went 29-3 this year, won the ACC regular season, almost won the ACC tournament and are ranked number one defensively in the nation. That's a great resume, and one that could make them a threat to Kentucky any other time. The issue; Virginia's offense, which aside from Justin Anderson is as lethargic as it comes, and a notable lack of size. Put those two deficiencies together, and the Cavaliers are out.
Enter Duke, who most of America seems to be hoping will collide with Kentucky in the National Championship game. I'm not as sold on the Blue Devils as others; they twice lost to Notre Dame this year, were beaten soundly by a Miami team that didn't even make the tournament, and are far too dependent on three point shooting. That's not always a bad thing come tournament time, but against Kentucky, the third best team at defending the three point shot, it could prove to be a liability. Despite that though, Duke would have a shot thanks to Coach K; even after all these years, he remains the best coach in college basketball and handles big time situations better than any other sideline counterpart. Also a big help is that, like Wisconsin, Duke has a big man of their own in Jahlil Okafor, an offensive force and the best competition with Anthony-Towns for the number one pick in the NBA Draft. Those factors might do more to make a Duke-Kentucky match up watchable than competitive, but they do at least give the Blue Devils a shot.
Never bet against Rick Pitino kids. This Louisville squad may not be as notable or high powered as they have been in recent years, but they always seem to do well come tournament time and Pitino remains one of the best coaches in the game today. Also consider this; it's bad enough for Kentucky to have come all this way only to lose now, but it would be worse if they were to somehow fall to their arch rival in the National Championship Game (the only time Kentucky and Louisville would play). The pressure of trying to win the title as a perfect team against Louisville would be enormous, and that alone gives Louisville a great shot.
The Fighting Irish are the number three seed in the Midwest Region and frankly I cannot understand why. This is a fantastic team that went 29-5 this year, beat Duke (the presumed best chance at beating Kentucky), have a top ten offense in the nation and have legit star player in Jerian Grant. Add that all up, and Notre Dame is the most dangerous threat of keeping Kentucky out of the Final Four. Whether or not they can will depend on them overcoming their lack of size (no player on Notre Dame is taller than 6'9) and if Mike Brey can finally rise to the occasion after never taking the Irish past the second round.
Full disclosure; I'm not that big a fan of Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan. He's by no means bad, but aside from last year, his brand of basketball has only once gotten the Badgers past the Sweet Sixteen. As good as he is, it appears that his brand of basketball only takes you so far. So why does Wisconsin have a shot? Simply put, Ryan's style of basketball gives the Badgers a distinct advantage against Kentucky, as they defend, don't foul and have turned the ball over the fewest times in the NCAA this year. Combine that with this Wisconsin team performing well offensively (not a staple of Ryan's tenure) and their 7'0 star Frank Kaminsky matching with Kentucky's big's, and they are dangerous. Barring an upset, this is the best chance a team has at beating the Wildcats.