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Kansas can beat Kentucky — just ask these four favorites

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Upsets are in the NCAA tournament’s DNA. They’re the best part of the first four days and become some of the most memorable moments when they happen in later rounds.

N.C. State over Houston. Villanova tops Georgetown. Duke stuns UNLV. Kansas knocks off Oklahoma. Four examples of a team beating a more talented opponent on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Who says it can’t happen Monday night?

*****

Kansas is a 6-point underdog to Kentucky. That’s not a massive point spread – Duke-Butler in 2010 was higher – but it reflects the Wildcats impressive record (37-2), abundance of talent and consistency all season. No team spent more time atop the polls. Few teams sport better chemistry and balance.

It’s the best Kentucky team John Calipari’s had while coaching in Lexington. Considering the last two years (64-12, two SEC titles, a Final Four, an Elite Eight and eight NBA drafts picks) that’s impressive.

But Kansas isn’t Butler. It’s not N.C. State or Villanova or many of those other teams that pulled off stunning wins in previous years. It has NBA talent and a coach who won this tournament in 2008. The Jayhawks (32-6) entered this tournament as a No. 2 seed and won the Big 12 by two games. If there’s a comparison to previous NCAA tourney teams, it’s much more similar to these four. (Point spreads from armadillosports.)

Kansas, 1988
What happened
: Beat No. 1 Oklahoma, 83-79 in title game.
Point spread: Oklahoma by 8.5
Sound familiar? OU sported future NBA players Mookie Blaylock, Stacey King and Harvey Grant and ran away from pretty much every team in the tournament. Yet the Jayhawks (27-11) played Oklahoma’s style for the half, matching the up-tempo Sooners (35-4) 50-50 at halftime. This year’s Kansas team also loves to run, but conventional thinking is that it’s foolish to try and outrun Kentucky – especially with all of its NBA talent.
Yeah, but … The Sooners had talent, but it’s not close to what this year’s Kentucky group sports. Also, those Sooners liked to run, but didn’t care about defense and could be soft. That doesn’t apply to Kentucky. Also, Kansas had Danny Manning, the nation’s top player. The 2012 top player suits up for Kentucky.
The takeaway: It’s possible to match a more talented opponent in style using personnel that most write off. And Kansas isn’t dwarfed by Kentucky’s talent.

Duke, 1991
What happened
: Beat No. 1 UNLV 79-77 in Final Four.
Point spread: UNLV by 9.5
Sound familiar? The Rebels were that season’s dominant team, entering the game with 34-0 record and boasting the national player of the year (Larry Johnson) who was flanked by two other lottery picks. But the 2nd-seeded Devils (30-7 entering the game) were a 2-seed that won the ACC, had an All-American frontcourt player and a balanced supporting cast that was underrated athletically. Also, Duke was motivated for revenge after getting crushed in the 1990 title game.
Yeah, but … Duke turned out to have just as much NBA talent in Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill as the Rebels did with Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. We just didn’t know it then. UNLV seemed flustered an surprised when Duke hung with the Rebels. That doesn’t apply to Kentucky. Also, Duke made 51.7 percent of its shots that game. Kansas snapping out of a shooting slump seems unlikely by now.
The takeaway: One of the best examples that a perfect team can stumble, even with elite NBA talent.

Arizona, 1997
What happened
: Beat No. 1 Kentucky 84-79 (OT) in title game
Point spread: Kentucky by 6.5
Sound familiar? Arizona, a 4 seed, was coming off wins against 1 seeds Kansas and North Carolina. This wasn’t Lute OIson’s most talented Wildcats team by a longshot, but it somehow was in the title game, facing a loaded Kentucky team – four future pros – that had the game’s best player in Ron Mercer.
Yeah, but … Kentucky wasn’t exactly the team that rolled to a 35-4 record entering the game. Guard Derek Anderson was out with an injury while its big men could be negated with Arizona’s middling frontcourt. The Wildcats were quicker, just as athletic and hot. The ’12 Kentucky team is perfectly healthy and more balanced.
The takeaway: Randomness happens in the oddest spots. Miles Simon scored 30 vs. the ‘Cats. Could Elijah Johnson produce a similar scoring outburst?

Connecticut, 1999
What happened: Beat No. 1 Duke77-74 in title game
Point spread
: Duke by 9.5
Sound familiar? The Devils entered the game as massive favorites, sported four players who would be lottery picks in the 1999 NBA draft (and another in Shane Battier two years later) and spent the season trouncing teams with a lethal inside-outside game. Elton Brand was player of the year. Trajan Langdon the deadly outside shooter. Etc, etc. But UConn had a lottery pick of its own (Rip Hamilton), a fearless point guard and an underrated big man. Seriously, this sounds like the 2012 title game.
Yeah, but UConn was a tad better than Kansas. The Huskies were a 1 seed, had lost just two games and had a lock-down defender in Ricky Moore. Plus, ’99 Duke wasn’t nearly as athletic as 2012 Kentucky. Also, Kansas would love to be in the offensive groove those Huskies were.
The takeaway: Don’t overlook a balanced, disciplined team when facing a bevy of future draft picks.

*****
Kentucky’s the better team. It’s shown as much all season and during the tournament. Kansas has about 15 different thing it needs to do to win the game, starting with stopping the Wildcats’ transition baskets and ensuring center Jeff Withey is free to block shots whenever possible to throw off the Wildcats’ post players.

You’ll probably see Kansas occasionally use a zone, force Kentucky to defend for long stretches by being patient on offense and try to get the ‘Cats out of their comfort zone. The Jayhawks will be physical. They’ll be dogged and determined.

If it’s close, that means Kansas has a chance. And that’s a chance at history.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Kansas forward arrested on suspicion of battery

Douglas County Sheriff
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Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was charged today with one count of battery.

According to a press release sent out by the Douglas County district attorney’s office, police received a call around 1 a.m. from a woman who said that “her boyfriend had struck her and pushed her down stairs during an argument.”

The DA also included a note in the statement that, essentially, said the only reason Bragg wasn’t charged with domestic violence – he was initially arrested on suspicion of domestic battery – was due to a technicality. Since the couple is only dating and not married, under Kansas law, the assault does not constitute domestic violence.

Battery is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison.

Bragg, who was still in custody until an appearance in court on Friday afternoon, was held on bond of $500. Bragg plead not guilty.

“We are still trying to gather information,” head coach Bill Self told The Star. “But it is a charge which we take very seriously.”

Bragg is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that lost his spot in the starting lineup earlier this year. He is averaging 7.8 points and 5.3 boards in 16 minutes. No. 3 Kansas hosts Nebraska on Saturday.

St. John’s to lose center to transfer

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 13: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats has his shot blocked by Yankuba Sima #35 of the St. John's Red Storm at the Wells Fargo Center on February 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Villanova won 73-63. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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Yankuba Sima will transfer out of the St. John’s program, the school announced on Friday.

“I want to thank the coaching staff and the administration for all of their support since I arrived at St. John’s,” said Sima. “I enjoyed my experience at St. John’s, but right now I feel it is best for me to explore options that will be a better fit for me as I work toward my goals.”

“We wish Yankuba the best of luck,” said head coach Chris Mullin. “I know this wasn’t an easy decision for him, but we respect and understand it. He’s a good basketball player and a good person with a bright future ahead.”

Sima started 26 of the 34 games he played with the Johnnies, including eight starts this season. He was averaging 6.0 points and 3.5 boards this year.

Frank Martin comments on Sindarius Thornwell suspension

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina head coach Frank Martin commented on Sindarius Thornwell’s suspension during his call-in show on Thursday.

Thornwell, who was the leading scorer for the 8-0 No. 19 Gamecocks, was suspended indefinitely last Sunday. Martin has yet to provide a reason for the suspension.

“He’s been with us at practice, he’ll travel with us, he’s excited about our team, his role on the team,” he said, according to South Carolina’s 247 site. “Sindarius is one of my favorite guys I’ve ever come across. He messed up and it is what it is. He’s like a son to me. He messed up and he’s owned up to his mess up.”

“Outside of that, I’m not going to get into anything else. He has my full support. Our job is to prepare our team to play, we don’t prepare individual players to play. It’s no different to someone rolling an ankle. We’re down because of a bad decision. We’ll be fine.”

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.0 boards and 4.1 assists. The Gamecocks play Seton Hall in New York City on Monday night.

UCF star point guard out indefinitely with thumb injury

STORRS, CT - JANUARY 22: B.J. Taylor #1 of the Central Florida Knights carries the ball up the court in front of Ryan Boatright #11 of the Connecticut Huskies in the first half during the game at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on January 22, 2015 in Storrs, Connecticut.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Sophomore guard B.J. Taylor is out indefinitely after suffering a hand injury, UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins confirmed at a press conference earlier today.

According to a report from 247 Sports’ UCF site, the injury is a broken thumb, which was suffered in Saturday’s win over UMass.

Taylor is not expected to miss the rest of the season but will be out for an extended amount of time. He missed all of 2015-16 season dealing with a foot injury.

On the season, Taylor, a 6-foot-2 point guard, was having an all-AAC caliber season, averaging 17.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 boards.

Weekend Preview: Villanova tested by Notre Dame, bounce-backs for Xavier, Butler

Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This is a fascinating matchup for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the first real test that undefeated Notre Dame is going to be getting this season. We honestly have no idea how good the Irish actually are, and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to see a team starting Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson prove it before buying in.

But we also haven’t see Villanova tested in a while, either. They won at Purdue earlier this season and, since then, have more-or-less coasted to their undefeated mark. This will not only be a nice gauge game for Villanova, but it will also be a chance for them to pad an NCAA tournament résumé that will need to be strong for them to get a No. 1 seed this year.

The other part of this that’s fascinating? Both of these teams play small ball. There are going to be times on Saturday where 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson is playing center and being guarded by 6-foot-5 Kris Jenkins, who will be at center for the Wildcats.

No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Butler could really use this win. Coming off of a road loss to Indiana State during the week, the Bulldogs will be playing back in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But here’s the thing: Cincinnati could really use this win as well, and that Bearcat program already owns a road win over Iowa State.

The matchup here will be intriguing as well. Butler plays a more open, run-and-gun style than they did under Brad Stevens. Tyler Lewis is a show-man in transition, as is Kamar Baldwin, and getting Kelan Martin spotting up or attacking a close out is always a good coaching maneuver. Cincinnati is tough and big and physical. They try to wear you down. They pound the glass. They really, really defend. How does Butler handle it?

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FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: In one of the more under-appreciated rivalries in college basketball, Marquette will be looking to land a marquee win to bolster the non-conference portion of their NCAA tournament résumé. Will
    Nigel Hayes continue to play like an all-american?
  • Utah at No. 13 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: The Musketeers have lost back-to-back games and are really struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Utah has struggled this season as they have a young roster waiting on a pair of transfers to get eligible.
  • Michigan at No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: UCLA is now a week removed from their win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. This will be the first time they see the floor since then. Michigan had the look of a tournament team earlier in the season, but they’ve lost a pair of winnable games in recent weeks.
  • Hofstra vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sun. 3:00 p.m.: The Wildcats will square off with Hofstra on Sunday, a game that is only really notable because it will be played in the Barclays Center.
  • No. 21 Florida at Florida State, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: The Gators looked the part of an NCAA tournament team when they lost to Duke in New York City on Tuesday. Florida State is more talented, however, but it’s difficult to trust them. This will be a big win for whoever gets it.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is officially a concern: The Wildcats are currently shooting 32.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 254th nationally. The only real threat they have from three in their starting lineup is Malik Monk, and he’s streaky. They can play Derek Willis at the four, but Willis is such a step-down on the defensive end of the floor from Wenyen Gabriel that it may not end up being a net-positive to play him, not when the Wildcats rely so heavily on their defense to create offense in transition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not even sure there is an answer. This is just what Coach Cal has to work with this season. Can they improve? Probably. The great thing about being a bad shooting team is that shooting is the easiest thing to develop. Teams without size can’t get bigger. Teams without athleticism can’t get more athletic. The only problem? There are just four months left of the season. How much better can Kentucky really get?

One thing worth noting here: The 2010 Kentucky team, the one with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, the one that lost in the Elite 8 because of their shooting issues, finished the season making 33.1 percent of their threes.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Let’s see if Notre Dame is for real: The Fighting Irish are one of nine undefeated teams left in college basketball, but as good as they have been this season, Mike Brey’s club still hasn’t really beaten anyone. The Colorado win looks better after the Buffaloes beat Xavier. Beating Fort Wayne, the team that upset Indiana, is good. Northwestern and Iowa are Big Ten teams.

But none of those four wins – none of Notre Dame’s nine wins – have come against a team we know will be in the NCAA tournament. We know Villanova will be, and the interesting thing about this matchup is how well the two teams matchup, particularly up front. Neither the Irish nor the Wildcats have much size inside. If Notre Dame can pull off the upset, it will be time to start talking about them much more.

3. UCLA’s first action since the win at Kentucky: The last time that we saw the Bruins take the court they put up 97 points on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s pretty good. It’s also an easy way to get a big head, especially for a team that has so many freshmen on the roster. UCLA will face off with Michigan at home on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how they come out early on in this one.

4. Bounce-back chances for Big East programs: No. 13 Xavier has lost two games in a row now, both of them coming on the road. They were felled at No. 4 Baylor before getting dropped at Colorado on Wednesday. The Musketeers will host Utah, a winnable game that could help them find a rhythm shooting the ball.

No. 16 Butler is coming off of a loss of their home, having been upset at Indiana State by the Sycamores. The Bulldogs will have a bigger test than the Musketeers, as they host a top 25 team in No. 22 Cincinnati.

5. Jonathan Isaac’s health, Florida State’s tournament hopes?: Isaac is the forgotten top ten pick. He’s been terrific this season and has a chance to play his way into the top ten if he continues doing what he’s been doing, but he’s missed the last two games with a hip injury. This is an important game for the Seminoles, as they host Florida this weekend. Will Isaac be available?