Can anyone beat Kentucky? Where it could stumble

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INSTANT ANALYSISEast | West | South | Midwest

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?

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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.


Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.