ATLANTA – If you listen to the national media this week, you’ll be led to believe the University of Kentucky’s march to an unbeaten national championship season is merely a formality. That very well might be true.
The top-ranked Wildcats have developed into one of the most stifling defenses in college basketball, limiting some of their toughest opponents – Louisville, Kansas, Providence, among others – to fewer than 50 points. They continue to go nine deep, with all but one of those players former McDonald’s All-Americans. Not to mention, the ‘Cats just completed an SEC Tournament run where they were never challenged, winning by an average margin of 18 points per game.READ MORE: Atlanta Public Schools launches HOPE Child Savings Accounts Program for Kindergarteners
There is every reason to believe Kentucky will be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis on April 6.
But before you pencil in Big Blue all the way through your bracket, remember that they call this tournament “March Madness” for a reason. No other sport requires teams to win six games over a three week span, with all of those games being played away from home.
Think about that. One of the most overused axioms in sports – the “must-win game” – is applicable to every one of the 67 games throughout March Madness. One slip-up, one bad second half stretch, one referee’s whistle and your program is looking ahead to 2016. Yes, even this Kentucky team could be susceptible to the madness of March.
Whichever team is going to upset the ‘Cats will have to do plenty of things right – hitting from three, staying competitive on the boards, limiting turnovers – and still, they’ll need some help from Kentucky.
The joke all season has been the only team that can beat Kentucky is Kentucky. Here are five teams likely to take advantage of an off-night by the ‘Cats.
5. Maryland (SWEET 16) – When you go position by position, the Terps match up surprisingly well with the ‘Cats. Point guard Melo Trimble has the ability to drill the outside shot and gets to the free throw line with more frequency than any freshman in America. Guard Dez Wells provides the veteran leadership and versatility that any team hoping to beat Kentucky will need. Junior Jake Layman is a stretch four who can drive and shoot it from downtown. The X-factor comes inside, where Maryland boasts a pair of very long, but very raw big men in 7′ 0″ freshman Michal Cekovsky and 6’ 9″ sophomore Damonte Dodd. The Terps would need a perfect effort up and down the roster, but they provide the earliest potential stumbling block on Kentucky’s road to perfection.READ MORE: K-9 Locates Missing Woman In Thonotosassa
4. North Carolina (Final 4) – The Heels are loaded with talent and, with the exception of the last eight minutes against Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game, are peaking at the right time. UNC is already familiar with the ‘Cats, having lost 84-70 at Rupp Arena on December 13. In that game, point guard Marcus Paige and swingman J.P. Tokoto combined for 22 points and 10 turnovers. Both Paige and Tokoto are playing better basketball of late and the emergence of freshman Justin Jackson has been crucial. The 6’ 8″ forward hit 4-of-5 threes en route to a 22 point night as the Heels upset #3 Virginia in the ACC semifinals. Add in the 15.2 rebounds per game provided by Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks down low and the Heels could give Kentucky some real problems.
3. Arizona (Final 4) – Another team from the stacked West Region, the starting five for these Wildcats match up with Kentucky’s starters perhaps better than any team in the field of 68. Arizona features a steady floor general in senior point guard T.J. McConnell. They also boast the talented forward trio of freshman Stanley Johnson, sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and junior Brandon Ashley. The three are athletic, aggressive and have combined to average better than 37 points and 17 rebounds per game. Add in a coach in Sean Miller whose recruiting bona fides are unquestioned, but who has never taken a team to the Final Four and this could be Arizona’s year, whether Kentucky’s standing in their way or not.
2. Wisconsin (Final 4) – Chalk this one up to payback. The Badgers were a point away from heading to their first-ever national title game a year ago. Instead, Aaron Harrison drilled an improbable, NBA-range three to derail Wisconsin’s dream. Now, with another year of experience under their belts, the Badgers could be in prime position to meet – and beat – Kentucky in a rematch. It starts and ends with senior big man Frank Kaminsky, the likely winner of the Naismith Player of the Year Award. The real X-factor, though, in a Badgers-‘Cats rematch would be the possible return of senior point guard Traevon Jackson. Jackson’s been cleared by team doctors to return to practice Monday after breaking his foot back in January and he could play in the Badgers’ opener Friday against Coastal Carolina. Jackson leads the team in assists and is better suited than anyone on the Wisconsin roster to deal with the length of the Harrison twins or the quickness of Tyler Ulis.
1. Duke (National final) – The Devils and ‘Cats obviously have a history in March Madness, but this potential title game matchup – which would actually take place in April – has the makings of an instant classic. Duke big man Jahlil Okafor has been their best player all year long, causing matchup nightmares for even the small handful of teams that have managed to beat the Devils. The freshman has combined with junior forward Amile Jefferson for 15 rebounds per game and would be formidable against Kentucky’s bigs. The backcourt duo of freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook is enticing, as is rookie swingman Justise Winslow, who some scouts say is the best NBA prospect on the Duke roster. Add to that a veteran leader in Coach K, who is running out of chances to win a fifth national championship, and Duke may be the team to end Kentucky’s season at 39-1.MORE NEWS: Biden to travel Tuesday to Buffalo following mass shooting
With all that said, I’ve filled out my bracket and, like everyone else in America, I have Coach Cal and the ‘Cats cutting down the nets when all is said and done. The outcome may be set, but there’s sure to be plenty of excitement along the way.