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?

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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.

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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.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.