Now that the first four in have been decided (Hampton, Dayton, Robert Morris and Ole Miss), Round 2 of the Division I championship is underway. Even with more than sixty great teams on the bracket this year, one team remains at the forefront of everyone’s mind: the Kentucky Wildcats.
They managed to get through the regular season undefeated, a feat that many believed they could pull off but that some had doubted. Now that they’ve entered the tournament, however, they have to keep it up or else risk giving up the championship. That said, it’s worth taking a look at what their potential roadblocks might be if they wish to take home a title win this year.
Kentucky’s first game is against the Hampton Pirates, a team that didn’t even receive a mention in our Final Four predictions. In fact, most sports experts didn’t exactly peg them as a top contender for the first four. While some fans might have thought that Hampton and Manhattan were essentially playing for a chance to lose this past week, more astute fans might realize that Hampton’s extreme dark horse status actually gives them something of an edge.
Why’s that? Because much like everyone else, Kentucky didn’t know that Hampton would make it this far. As a result, they haven’t watched the team play a single game all season. If they’d watched the game against Manhattan, they would have seen that the Pirates got off to a seven-point lead and managed to increase that lead to ten points by the end of the game. Kentucky is a pretty defensive team, so they might be able to keep the Pirates from getting ahead so early. But that means they’re going to have to pay attention. Playing a sixteenth seed doesn’t mean you get to coast.
There are, however, still one or two solid reasons to suspect that Kentucky might have this one in the bag. First of all, Hampton’s head coach Ed Joyner doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence. His recent joke at a postgame news conference about having “Jesus on speed dial” may have been played up for comedic effect, but the fact of the matter is that he’s probably praying for a win on this one.
From a more practical standpoint, Hampton has two guards struggling with sprained ankles right now. Dwight Meikle (the team’s leader in rebounds and points per game) might be out of the game completely, and Quinton Chievous is definitely playing but still dealing with a very recent injury from the team’s last game. The team will have to get through these major upsets if they really want to be able to call themselves a roadblock to Kentucky’s championship.
If you believe President Obama’s bracket (yes, he has a bracket) then Kentucky is going to be playing the third round against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Much like Kentucky, the Bearcats are a very defensive-minded team. They keep their opponents restricted to a shooting average of just thirty-nine percent, meaning that a match-up between the two teams is likely to result in a fairly low-scoring game.
The team’s also dealing with a lot of pressure right now, and they’re motivated to win big. That sort of pressure tends to result with national analysts have the gall to tell your team that they don’t think you’ll make it out of the second round. The fact that Cincinnati hasn’t let the odds affect their confidence shows that they’re going to be taking a lot of determination to the court with them no matter who they play for the rest of the tournament.
Of course, Kentucky could just as easily wind up facing off against the Purdue Boilermakers. Much like Cincinnati, opponents of Purdue tend to make less than forty percent in terms of shooting. In addition, the team has centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, each of which stands at or above seven feet tall and tends to know what they’re doing when they get their hands on the ball (not that Kentucky doesn’t have their own qualified seven-footers). Hammons is the team’s leader in both rebounds and points per game, so he’s going to be a major influence on any potential games against Kentucky.
The one thing that might stand to hurt Purdue if they wind up facing Kentucky is that they haven’t really seen anything in the way of zone defense for the bulk of the regular season, and Kentucky is more than a little bit likely to show it to them. The Boilermakers are going to have to push hard through the lanes if they want to score on the Wildcats in the third round.
The Maryland Terrapins might not be high on everyone’s radar, but all that means is that everyone’s radar could use some fine-tuning. Some might know Maryland for the insane flash mobs they put together against Duke in 2013 and against Wisconsin (one of many experts’ selections for this year’s Final Four) just last month. And that’s a great reason to know them. But it should also be noted that they won both those games when most people had stacked the odds against them. If they play Kentucky in the Sweet 16, expect to see some well-played basketball and some superbly choreographed dancing.
Bryce Drew is entering the Division I tournament in his fourth year coaching the Valparaiso Crusaders, which is a pretty big deal. If you don’t recognize the name, go ahead and Google his buzzer beater against the Mississippi Rebels in 1998. It was such a landmark play, it even has its own Wikipedia page (entitled “The Shot”). In short, Drew knows something about basketball, and he definitely knows something about winning. True, Valpo hasn’t won a Division I tournament game since then, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for another one. It’s worth noting that The Shot started off a tournament that led the Crusaders to the Sweet Sixteen. They’ve been talking about it a lot lately, so it’s a good bet that they’re going to work hard to get there again.
The West Virginia Mountaineers have excelled this year at mounting pressure on the opposing team’s offense. They’ve got more steals than any other team in the NCAA right now, as well as offensive rebounds. In short, they play a demonstrably aggressive defense that rivals even that of the Kentucky Wildcats. If Kentucky’s been watching WVU’s games this year, they might be ready for it. Even so, WVU has yet to lose a game if they could keep their opponents from shooting more than fifty percent or netting more than sixty-nine points. That gives them a statistically decent chance of giving Kentucky a run for their money if they make it to the Sweet 16 against them.
Buffalo hasn’t been in the running for a Division I championship title in some time, which means they’ve got quite a bit of drive behind them right now. Some are pegging them to take down WVU, and if they make it to the Sweet 16 then they’ll likely amp up their game quite a bit. They already led a game against the Wildcats for the first half just earlier this year, with star forward Justin Moss proving his impregnable offensive skills (despite suffering from the same heart condition that took former Celtics forward Reggie Lewis). Not only is he a decent scorer, but he knows how to draw fouls as well. If the Bulls get a chance to play a rematch against Kentucky in the Sweet 16, they’re going to want that second half this time around. And despite his heart condition, Moss is far from slowing down.
Two of the best teams in the bottom half of the Midwest bracket are the Butler Bulldogs and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, so don’t be surprised if Kentucky makes it to the Elite Eight and has to face off against one of these two. Butler would be a particularly interesting team to see play against Kentucky, as the two have pretty similar defensive games. Butler knows how to keep the score down while still pulling ahead on offense (they literally just did it against the Texas Longhorns), so they might manage to pull the same style of play against Kentucky. Interestingly enough, we actually talked about this match-up in our initial Final Four predictions, long before we knew it was possible. Now it looks like there’s actually a distinct chance that the two might end up playing each other.
Of course, there’s also a distinct chance that Notre Dame will rise to the top, which is exactly what the POTUS bracket predicts (of course, it also predicted the Fighting Irish playing the Longhorns in the Round of 32, and that definitely isn’t happening). Unlike some of the teams that have been mentioned thus far, Notre Dame’s skills as a team aren’t exactly news. They’ve beaten another top seed twice this year (the Duke Blue Devils), so it isn’t outlandish to assume that they could beat another one. They’ve also got point guard Jerian Grant, the indisputable leader of Notre Dame’s offense this year.
Another potential roadblock for Kentucky is going to be either the Wichita State Shockers or the Indiana Hoosiers. The two are up against each other for a spot in the Round of 32, and they’re pretty evenly matched. However, they’re both pretty small compared to most basketball teams, but the Shockers have a better defense right now. This year, defense seems to be killing it in the NCAA, so that gives WSU a pretty good chance of making it through. While most Shockers fans are more eager about a potential game between them and Kansas than anything else, it’ll still be fun to see a team with some decent guards play against arguably the best defensive team in the country right now. WSU also has a bone to pick with Kentucky for putting a damper on their undefeated season last year.
The New Mexico State Aggies have been keeping their opponents in check, with opposing teams generally sticking at or below 42% in terms of shooting. That makes them a potential roadblock against fellow defensive team Kentucky, but they aren’t half as imposing as the Kansas Jayhawks, their opponents in the second round. The Jayhawks haven’t had an excessively perfect season, but they’ve won against some pretty solid teams (granted, Kentucky most certainly wasn’t one of them). While we noted some of their losses in our Elite Eight breakdown, we also noted in our Final Four predictions that they’ve got a comparable defense with an arguably stronger offense than that of Kentucky. Also, their losses don’t mean too much when you consider that the predominance of them have been pretty close games. Some think they’ve been struggling, but that doesn’t feel like the right word for a team that either wins big or just barely loses.
Let’s not waste too much time talking about the Final Four. The North Carolina Tar Heels have something over the Harvard Crimson, the Arkansas Razorbacks, and the Wofford Terriers. In similar fashion, the Ole Miss Rebels can easily triumph over the Xavier Musketeers and possibly even the Georgia State Panthers (who just beat the Baylor Bears). But none of these teams matters. If anyone’s going to the Final Four against Kentucky, it’s going to be either the Wisconsin Badgers or the Arizona Wildcats.
Wisconsin is one of the favored picks for the Final Four, and if they make it to the top of the West bracket then they’ll be facing Kentucky in the semifinals. They should make it through their first game against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, and neither of the teams up to oppose them in the next round (the Oregon Ducks and the Oklahoma State Cowboys) poses much of a threat. Wisconsin is more than capable of dominating the court physically, and they tend to run the shot clock before ultimately netting the ball at the last second. It’s going to be a difficult style for Kentucky to defend against.
Arizona just beat the Texas Southern Tigers (no surprise there) and will probably continue on to dominate the court against either the Ohio State Buckeyes or the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. While Arizona may not be as favored as Wisconsin, they can still give Kentucky a solid run for their money. They’ve got a comparably strong defense, and they’ve also got a fairly strong offense. In fact, they’re not far from Wisconsin when it comes to their average length of possession. In short, Arizona and Wisconsin have strikingly similar teams that could easily give Kentucky a beating if they make it to the Final Four.
If Kentucky makes it to the finals, most people are assuming they’ll wind up against the Villanova Wildcats or the Duke Blue Devils. Let’s start with Duke, since their fans tend to think they’re going to win just about every year (not that this sets them apart from most fans in the history of sports).
Duke is one of the most popular Final Four picks in the nation, and not without reason. They’ve maintained their predicted top seed in the bracket for pretty much the entirety of the season, not unlike Kentucky. They may not be undefeated, but they hardly had any losses this year, and they’ve been better this season than they have in the past five years. In fact, this season has been uncannily similar to their 2010 season, with 29 wins and predictions to go up against an undefeated team in Indianapolis. This isn’t going to be lost on the team; they’re going to want to make a comeback, and they’re going to be giving it everything they’ve got.
Duke isn’t the only team that’s disappointed fans in recent years. Villanova’s slated for a comeback as well, and it doesn’t hurt that a number of their games are being played in close proximity to their hometown. This means that they won’t be travel-weary, and they can focus the bulk of their attention on playing some quality basketball. They’re starting the tournament with a fifteen-game winning streak, and they’ve got some experienced players between guards Ryan Arcidiacono (junior) and star player Darrun Hilliard (senior). Hilliard especially is going into this game with probable draft prospects, so he isn’t going to take it easy on Kentucky. Even Kentucky’s impenetrable defense is going to struggle against a team that tends to lead by around fifteen points in each of their wins.
Kentucky’s biggest roadblock won’t be another team, but rather their own sense of ambition. They’ve striven hard for achievement this year, and they can’t let that go-getter attitude waver for even one second if they wish to make it through the tournament. Luckily, they don’t seem to be faltering one bit. As long as they stay driven and don’t let the success go to their heads too much, they should be able to maintain a strong game throughout the rest of the tournament. No matter who they play, they have to keep their egos in check and do it for a love of their massive fan base as well as out of respect for the game.