Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.
There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.
This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.
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WHY THEY CAN WIN: It’s John Calipari and it’s a team full of elite players. That has, generally speaking, always been a formula that, at the least, has the Wildcats in contention.
Cal has been at Kentucky for seven years. He’s made the Final Four in four of those seven years. One of the three years that he didn’t get to the Final Four he saw his best player, Nerlens Noel, tear an ACL in conference play. Another one of the years he didn’t get to the Final Four he had the most talented team in the country and it got bounced in the Elite 8.
He’s won a national title.
He won 38 straight games.
And he’ll have one of the most talented teams in the country again this season.
It starts in the back court, where Kentucky will have the most athletic pair of guards in the country in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Both Fox and Monk are potential lottery picks – Fox playing the role of point guard with Monk playing off the ball – and the duo should make life hell for opposing back courts; Fox may be the best back court defender in the country, while Monk’s athleticism is impressive enough that effort is the only thing that should keep him from being a lockdown defender. They are the engine that should let Kentucky run as one of the nation’s best defenses.
Isaiah Briscoe is the third guard on Kentucky’s roster, and the Wildcats could do worse than slotting Dominique Hawkins in for 10 minutes a night in their back court.
Kentucky’s front court is even deeper. Bam Adebayo is the name to know there. A thrillingly athletic, 6-foot-10 power forward, Bam has the best chance to be the superstar on this team. He was known in high school for his powerful dunking ability, but he has a solid face-up game and should be able to step away from the rim to create space when Kentucky wants to play big.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the front court rotation will work itself out. Sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries has drawn rave reviews this summer, but he’s not exactly a typical Kentucky big man. He’s less athlete than he is land warrior, and while he’s a good rebounder with some skill in the post, he’s not exactly an intimidating shot-blocker.
Humphries – and to a lesser extent, Tai Wynyard – has value and a role on this Kentucky team, but his limitations are what make Wenyen Gabriel such an intriguing piece. Gabriel is another prospective first round pick for the Wildcats, although his hype is built more around his potential as a player than his expected production. He’s a lanky, mobile and athletic forward that can knock down threes and defend multiple positions. A lineup that features Gabriel at the four and Bam at the five will be athletic, versatile and a lot of fun to watch. I also think it would be the best defensive lineup that Kentucky can put on the floor.
And I think this is going to be a team that has to win games with their defense – we’ll get into that in a minute – which is why Derek Willis is this team’s x-factor. To put it bluntly, Kentucky has a major issue shooting the ball, and that just so happens to be Willis’ strength. He shot 44.2 percent from three on 120 threes attempted last season, he was the most efficient player on Kentucky’s roster and his presence in the lineup is what sparked the late season surge for the Wildcats last year. His issue, other than staying healthy, is on the defensive end of the floor, but he at least has the length and the physical tools to hold his own.
With the rest of the defensive options on the floor around him, that may end up being good enough.
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WHY THEY WON’T WIN: I love the pieces on this Kentucky team.
I don’t love how the pieces fit together.
The biggest issue for me is the lack of perimeter shooting. De’Aaron Fox thrives in transition but he’s somewhat limited in the half court offensively, particularly when it comes to shooting the ball. Malik Monk is a streaky three-point shooter, the kind of player that can make six in a row in one game and then make four of his next 30. Isaiah Briscoe shot 13.5 percent from three last season. Hawkins shot 27.6 percent.
When Kentucky plays three guards together, there isn’t going to be much space inside the arc to operate, which creates problems for the guards on the perimeter that slash to the rim and the bigs that operate in the paint. One solution to this problem is playing Derek Willis, but the question then becomes where does he fit on the floor? Does he see time at the three, forcing Briscoe to the bench, or will he be used as a stretch four like he was last season?
The other question mark is Monk. The biggest reason he’s been such an inefficient jump shooter throughout his high school career is his shot selection. He loves firing up deep threes early in the clock and he has no conscience when it comes to letting fly with a hand in his face, but that all came while playing for the high school team in Bentonville, Arkansas. He wasn’t doing this while on the roster at, say, Oak Hill Academy or Findlay Prep. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to playing on a team where he isn’t by far the best player.
However Cal decides to build his rotation, the bottom-line is that floor-spacing will be a concern for the Wildcats throughout the year.
Which brings us to the second question mark with this team: Their defense. Cal’s best teams are not only elite on the defensive end of the floor – John Wall’s 2010 team finished sixth in defensive efficiency, the 2012 title winning team finished eighth and the 2015 team that went 38-0 finished first – they all finished in the top two is block percentage.
To put it simply: When there are a slew of really big, really long and really athletic dudes standing in front of the rim, it makes it really easy for the really quick, really athletic dudes on the perimeter to get out and pressure on the perimeter. If they get beaten or gamble and miss on a steal, so what? Good luck finishing over Anthony Davis or Karl Towns.
This year, Kentucky doesn’t really have that rim protector, at least not on paper. Isaac Humphries is their best returning shot-blocker, but he doesn’t project as an elite rim protector the way Towns and Davis did. The other issue with Humphries is that he’s nowhere near as fleet-a-foot as a typical Kentucky big man; he’s not going to be switching ball-screens.
Bam is athletic enough to be that guy, but he’s not as big as Towns or Davis and doesn’t have the same reputation as a shot-blocker. In lineups where he’s asked to play the five, that slots Gabriel, Killeya-Jones or even Willis at the four. That front line is not all that big. Defensive rebounding could be a real problem.
I bring up these issues on the defensive end because I think this team is going to have issues offensively. If they’re going to win the national title, they’re going to have to be one of, if not the best defensive team in the country.
PREDICTION: This team reminds me an awful lot of the 2010 team that lost to West Virginia in the Elite 8. That team featured John Wall and Eric Bledsoe in the back court with a front line of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.
But here’s the thing: Wall and Bledsoe were probably better than Fox and Monk will be. Cousins is markedly better than Humphries, and if Bam ends up being better than Patterson – who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 boards as a sophomore in 2008-09 – he’ll be a second-team all-american at worst.
That 2010 team went 35-3. After a slow start to the year, they cruised to regular season and tournament titles in a mediocre, but were done in by a 4-for-32 three-point shooting performance against West Virginia in the Elite 8.
I would not be the least surprised to see this season play out the exact same way.