WASHINGTON, March 21, 2015 — As the collective madness of the NCAA Division I men’s tournament takes hold across the nation, the big question is this: Can anyone can beat the 34-0 Kentucky Wildcats? Even President Obama picked Kentucky in his own March Madness bracket.
Kentucky does seem to have everything. The players are superhuman basketball stars who work together as a team under John Calipari, aka “Coach Cal.” The team seems to have nothing but fun on the court, multi-processing all the way through its fast-moving, ball-sharing offense and its almost oppressively stifling defense.
Commentators tirelessly point out they ways to beat Kentucky − move the ball, spread them out, shoot 3s, constantly attack. But so far, 34 teams have tried these tactics and more. But all have failed. As a result, Kentucky goes into the tournament looking incredibly strong.
For Kentucky, the goal is not only to win the tournament, but to become the first undefeated men’s national champion since 1976, when Indiana had that honor.
That said, the history of this tournament is all about past upsets and the potential for new ones. Anything from critical foul trouble in the home stretch to a suddenly fierce, exceptional game by an allegedly inferior but fired-up opponent could derail Kentucky’s hopes.
The Wildcats are unlikely to lose today against Cincinnati. The Bearcats are an 18.5 point underdog in this contest. While they are tough defenders and strong rebounders, the ‘Cats probably likely don’t have the juice or the stamina to unseat Kentucky.
Things will get a little more interesting if, as is likely, Kentucky makes it to the next round, where it will face either Maryland or West Virginia.
While not the strongest contenders to beat Kentucky, both Maryland and WVU could pull off that upset. West Virginia brings scorching pressure to bear in each and every contest, and the Mountaineers could very possibly throw Kentucky off its game. Terps’ guards Melo Trimble and Dez Wells could give Kentucky a tough challenge as well.
But Kentucky’s real challengers lie beyond Maryland and WVU. Villanova, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Gonzaga all could pull off a victory against this undefeated team. In addition, the University of Virginia., Duke, Wisconsin and Arizona could actually beat Kentucky. It’s well within the realm of possibility.
Despite losing three key players to graduation prior to this season, the University of Virginia started out 2014-2015 festivities with 19 straight wins. Coach Tony Bennett, generally hamstrung by dim recruiting rankings, has somehow managed to build built a fantastic program. Strong on offense and defense and extremely physical, UVa is certainly a contender for the national title. Against Kentucky, their strength and defense could help control the tempo, forcing the Wildcats work for every point.
However, UVa has a tough bracket to plow through, and, with Justin Anderson still not 100 percent, they may not even get to face Kentucky. If they do, much of the weight will still fall on Anderson. If he is healthy and plays well, Virginia can combine its pre-injury offense with its smoking defense to put up at least a decent challenge for the Wildcats.
Basketball powerhouse Duke is also a contender this year. A team that includes the scoring strenght of Jahlil Okafor, an outstanding offensive freshman, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, Justise Winslow, Amile Jefferson, Grayon Allen and Matt Jones has to be considered formidable. All are incredible 3-point shooters and make a lot of baskets. However, the Blue Devils have lagged on defense, a weakness Kentucky would eagerly look to exploit.
Of all the teams in the tournament, Wisconsin and Arizona are best positioned to defeat Kentucky.
Wisconsin is just plain good. Strong outside shooting, ball movement, terrific defense and physical play all will challenge the Wildcats. Likely first-round picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker lead this all-around strong team, obsessively focused on winning that national championship.
Even without starting point guard Traevon Jackson, out with a broken right foot since Jan. 11, this team is absolutely one of the best in the tournament. If Jackson returns after the first two games as expected, Wisconsin raises its game level another notch. This athletic Badger team can limit Kentucky inside, move the ball and penetrate.
The team scores 1.246 points per possession, which is the best percentage in the tournament. With Kaminsky in the mix, Kentucky will have to ratchet up its defense, costing the offense one of its major players at the basket. If Kaminsky is on, and if Jackson is in, Wisconsin looks like one fearsome opponent indeed.
Arizona is the other likely candidate to dethrone the mighty Wildcats. These desert denizens boast a smothering defense and a fast-paced offense. The entire team is nimble, versatile and fully capable of matching the Bluegrass Boys in size and skill.
Arizona has three veteran forwards in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski and a true leader in point guard T.J. McConnell. The Arizonans are powerful, and Kentucky will have to make some tough decisions on exactly how to defend against their freshman offensive star Stanley Johnson. Arizona’s outstanding defense will challenge Kentucky, which will have to stay focused even in the face of unusually strong shot blocking.
Unfortunately for Arizona, speeding up the game may not disrupt Kentucky. Instead, it will give Kentucky the opportunity for more possessions leading to additional attempts to score. Arizona also has a fairly abysmal 3-point record which could hurt the team. Plus, it doesn’t have a deep bench.
But a Wildcat v. Wildcat match up will definitely prove an exciting game, regardless of who comes out on top.
And then, of course, there’s Kentucky. While anything can happen, the team does seem to be sprinting toward destiny. The simple fact that the only real story in this tournament revolves around which team, if any, might actually upset the mighty Wildcats speaks to this team’s superior talent, which is further sharpened by exceptional and spirited coaching.
If Kentucky doesn’t win, the team’s surprise defeat would be an upset of epic proportions. If these Wildcats do triumph as expected, this team is headed for not only a national championship, but for college basketball immortality as well.