Like it or not, this NCAA tournament is going to almost entirely come down to one topic and one topic alone: Can anyone beat Kentucky?
That’s what happens when you have a team full of future lottery picks that will enter the NCAA tournament with a 34-0 record. It doesn’t matter if there are six other teams in the country that had a valid argument for being a No. 1 seed, or if those six teams — Wisconsin, Arizona, Duke, Villanova, Virginia and Gonzaga — are a cut above anyone else in the country.
That’s how good this Kentucky team is.
So let’s break it down round-by-round. Who can beat these Wildcats?
FILM SESSION: Who can Kentucky, and why
Round of 64: Hahahaha. Right. Moving on.
Round of 32: Cincinnati is physical enough to hang with Kentucky, but the way they play is basically like the JV version of Kentucky. You can’t out-Kentucky Kentucky. Purdue would be intriguing, as they have two seven-footers of their own, but I’m not sure they have the perimeter firepower to pull the upset.
Sweet 16: I don’t love any of these matchups. Maryland’s guards are really, really good, but I don’t think you can beat Kentucky relying on guards going 1-on-1; that’s what the Wildcats want you to do. West Virginia is dangerous to anyone because of the way they can press and force turnovers, but without a healthy Juwan Staten, can they even get that far? What if No. 12 Buffalo gets to the Sweet 16?
Elite 8: Who wants to see a rematch between Kentucky and Kansas? I’m sure the Jayhawk faithful would love a shot at redemption, and I think there’s a chance Kansas could pull that upset off. I know they’re without Cliff Alexander and Perry Ellis is banged up, but Kansas has a ton of shooters this season. Teams that can dial it up from deep are always a threat, which is why No. 3 seed Notre Dame may actually be the better sleeper pick to come out of the region. They have almost no chance of slowing down Kentucky in the paint or of keeping them off of the offensive glass, but Jerian Grant is a serious threat to be this year’s Shabazz Napier, and he’s surrounded by some flat out snipers.
Here’s another name for you: Texas. Yeah, I know, I know. But keep this in mind: The Longhorns have top ten talent, a massive front line and gave Kentucky a fight in Rupp Arena without their starting point guard.
Final Four: The biggest downside to this bracket, in my mind, is that the two best teams in the country not named Kentucky both ended up on the same side of the bracket, Wisconsin and Arizona. That’s also why I think that the Wildcats are the most susceptible to getting picked off in the Final Four.
As far as Wisconsin is concerned, they do the three things that you need to be able to do to beat Kentucky:
- Avoid getting dominated in the paint
- Force them to shoot over the top of the defense
- Score early or late in the shot clock
Wisconsin’s front line isn’t as deep as Kentucky’s, but it is every bit as big. And those big bodies aren’t just big and strong, all three of them — Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes — can step out on the perimeter and score; no one inverts their offense as well as the Badgers.
Arizona is peaking as well. Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York have played some of the best basketball of their careers of late, and that’s incredibly important in this particular matchup. When Arizona struggles offensively, they end up relying far too much on T.J. McConnell in ball-screen actions, and if there is one thing that Kentucky is great at doing defensively, it’s taking away ball-screens. They have the size and athleticism up front to keep Kentucky off the glass, and they play a Pack-Line defense as well as anyone this side of Virginia.
North Carolina and Baylor, if they can get to the Final Four, would also have a puncher’s chance at pulling the upset.
National Title Game: The way I see it, there are four teams on the other side of the bracket that can beat Kentucky in the national title game — Virginia, Duke, Gonzaga and Villanova — but if I’m being honest, I don’t love any of the matchups.
Virginia’s got the best matchup, given their ability on the defensive glass and how well they run that Pack-Line defense, but they are not the same team without Justin Anderson completely healthy. He’s coming off of a broken finger and an appendectomy, and if there is anything we saw during the ACC tournament, it’s that he’s not 100 percent yet.
Duke clearly has the firepower offensively, but how will Jahlil Okafor deal with Kentucky’s size offensively? How will they be able to keep the Wildcats off the glass? With five front court players over 6-foot-10, will Kentucky simply resort to putting Okafor on the line as much as possible?
Gonzaga has the size up front to matchup with Kentucky, but I don’t love the personnel matchups. They need Kyle Wiltjer’s versatility offensively, but will Wiltjer be physical enough to deal with having to guard the likes of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Towns?
Villanova is underrated, there’s no question about that, but I just cannot see a team that has one rotation player over 6-foot-7 — and just one big man that can hit threes — beating this Kentucky team.
Here’s the thing to remember about Kentucky: As good as they have been this season, they have yet to play one of those other six teams. Their loaded non-conference schedule, the one that included showdowns with Kansas, Texas, Louisville and North Carolina, doesn’t quite look as impressive as it did back in October.
The Wildcats could very well end up going 40-0 this season. No one in their right mind would argue against that.
But if they do, here’s to hoping that they get challenged along the way.