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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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