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The experience of watching this year’s Wildcat juggernaut is a lot like what it must have felt like to watch Kentucky back in the 1996 NCAA tournament. The similarities between the two teams are striking: The mercurial head coach, the trove of future NBA lottery picks, and the unmistakable swagger and hype. One could make the argument that current Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari is a better coach than Rick Pitino; and although success in the NBA is never a sure thing, even for a lottery pick (see: Bennett, Anthony), four Kentucky players are expected to be selected in the first 15 picks of this year’s draft. The main difference on paper is that the 1996 Wildcats—widely regarded as one of the greatest teams in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball history—lost twice that season. The 2015 Wildcats are undefeated. The 1996 Kentucky Wildcats won the Championship with ease, and there’s no reason to doubt that this year’s squad will do the same.
It’s easy to hate this team if you’re an NCAA purist against ‘one-and-done’ players, but once again, Calipari’s relentless recruitment system has paid off big time. The thing that jumps out about Kentucky is its size advantage. It’s unfair in every sense of the word, and there’s simply no other team in the tournament that can match-up against the front-court trio of 6’10” Trey Lyles, 6’11” Karl-Anthony Towns, and 7’0” Willie Cauley-Stein. Add in 7’0” centre Dakari Johnson—who comes in off the bench—and you’ve got a recipe for mismatches all over the court on both offence and defence.
Towns—projected to be one of the first picks in the 2015 NBA Draft—has been analyzed ad nauseum, but he remains the key to the title for Kentucky. He’s drawn comparisons to Andrew Bogut with his size and rim protection, and his potential as an NBA player is unlimited. His season stats aren’t dazzling—he averaged 10 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks a game—but his feel for the game is undeniable. His field goal percentage currently sits at 57 per cent, and should improve as he unleashes his inner Blake Griffin on the poor, undersized teams slated to take on Kentucky in the first few rounds.
The size advantage continues into the backcourt and the bench. The Harrison twins are both listed at 6’6”, giving Kentucky a pair of NBA small forward-sized guards. Andrew Harrison has a solid handle and a deadly shot, and both are lockdown perimeter defenders that will squeeze opposing offences into the paint, where Towns and Cauley-Stein will be lying in wait. But maybe the scariest part of this team is its depth. Shooting guard Devin Booker, a projected top-20 lottery pick with one of the purest shots in the tournament, is coming off the bench for this team. He is hitting more than 40 per cent of his three pointers this season, including 47 per cent from the right of the key, and is finishing at a 65 per cent clip around the rim. He’s Kentucky’s Lou Williams, only more efficient.
It’s clear that the Wildcats are the best all-around team in the tournament, but every juggernaut has its kryptonite—a team that matches up perfectly with all of its weaknesses. For Lebron’s Heat, it was the pass-happy Spurs who were able to tire out Miami’s frantic defence in the 2014 Finals. For Towns’ Wildcats, there’s simply no answer. Of course this is March Madness, and you can’t rule out Duke getting a monster game from Jahlil Okafor, or Gonzaga shooting the lights out, but this tournament is Kentucky’s for the taking.
Each year, March Madness features a few favourites. Filling out a bracket usually means picking a champion from a group of three or four powerhouse schools that are more or less equals. In ESPN’s 2014 Bracket Challenge, Florida was the most popular choice, with 27.1 per cent of participants picking the Gators to win. Michigan State was next best with 14.6 per cent of brackets picking the Spartans to win the title. This year, roughly half of all brackets have Kentucky winning. No other team reached a double-digit percentage.
Kentucky has been so good this season that picking any other team is seen as going against the tide. While Kentucky has impressed this season, its perfect record has led people to believe that the gap between it and the rest of the teams in the tournament is larger than it is. No one should argue against Kentucky being the favourite, but to say that its odds are better than the field’s is an overstatement.
Going undefeated is a rarity for a reason–it’s incredibly difficult and extremely unlikely. The tournament’s format lends itself to unlikely outcomes because of its single-game knockout format. Over a seven-game series, Kentucky would undoubtedly beat any team in the tournament, but the Wildcats chances in a single game setting are lower. As impressive as Kentucky has been this season, it is important to keep in mind that they have benefitted from a relatively weak schedule, especially down the stretch, thanks to playing in the SEC. In fact, the Wildcats have yet to face a team that finished the season ranked inside the top nine in the country. You have to beat the best to prove you’re the best, and Kentucky has yet to face a team such as Duke, which boasts elite talent that rivals that of the Wildcats.
The biggest threat to Kentucky lies in the West draw of the tournament. Both the Arizona Wildcats and the Wisconsin Badgers have the size and physicality to compete with Kentucky. Arizona is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and is almost as dominant as Kentucky. They have not lost a game since Feb. 7, and have only three losses all year. Those losses were by two, three, and four points respectively. That is to say, Arizona was five possessions away from being the nation’s other undefeated team. Would we still be having this debate if there were a second undefeated team in college basketball? Probably not.
As impressive as Arizona has been, the Badgers may be a bigger threat to Kentucky. Kentucky beat Wisconsin in the Final Four last year 74-73 and both teams brought back nearly every player. The gap between the two is not as big as headlines would have you believe. Wisconsin is the most efficient offensive team in the country, scoring 1.246 points per possession. This high efficiency stems from Wisconsin’s willingness to play long possessions, using the whole shot clock to create the best look possible. The Badgers simply do not waste chances on offence. This slow tempo makes every mistake its opponents make more significant because its opponents get fewer possessions. Kentucky is good, but not perfect, and against the Badgers, the margin for error shrinks.
Of course, Kentucky should still be seen as the tournament favourite, but it is not the only team with a shot at the title, as some have suggested. The Wildcats may go down as one of the greatest teams of all time. Going undefeated would be a remarkable accomplishment, but doing so would still be beating the odds rather than meeting expectations.
Editor's Pick: Kentucky
The Wildcats are simply too talented to bet against—hope you picked them in your bracket!