The Kentucky Wildcats are really, really good. After ending Wichita State’s historic bid for a perfect season in the round of 32 last year, the Wildcats now ride their own undefeated streak into the month of March. With a gaudy 31-0 record and a staggering collection of talent to match, Kentucky is looking primed to enter the tournament without a loss. Can the Cats run the table and complete the first perfect season since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, or will they falter come tournament time?
The Kentucky Wildcats came into the 2014-15 season with lofty expectations, thanks in large part to yet another top-rated recruiting class. Every year the top players leave to become lottery picks in the NBA, and every year another fresh batch of recruits replaces them. It must have come as a surprise, then, when several of the Wildcats’ top players from the National Championship runner-up team opted to stay in Lexington for another year to chase a championship. Combined with another elite recruiting class, returning players such as the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein solidified what is undoubtedly the most talented team in the nation.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Though it’s the high-octane offensive talent that attracts most of the highlights, it’s an historically suffocating defense that has powered the Wildcats to a 31-0 record. John Calipari has assembled one of the great defensive teams of the modern era, anchored by college basketball’s best defender in Willie Cauley-Stein. The do-it-all big man is equally at home shutting down centers in the post and locking down point guards with a full-court press, and he’s joined by a disruptive, ball-hawking collection of long, athletic defenders up and down the roster. The Wildcats currently lead the nation in opposing shooting percentage and points allowed per 100 possessions, and they show no signs of slowing down.
Can Anyone Beat Kentucky?
They don’t call it March Madness for no reason. It’s the time of year where anything can happen, and the scrappy little Davids get their chance to topple a college basketball Goliath. It’s unlikely such a story plays out with the Kentucky Wildcats, but there are several teams who have what it takes to challenge Big Blue. If the Cats can make it to the dance with a zero in the loss column, here are three teams that could give Calipari’s crew fits.
Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers are quite familiar with the Wildcats, having lost in heartbreaking fashion in last year’s Final Four. Though there’s no clear blueprint for taking down Kentucky, Wisconsin may have the best shot. The veteran squad is the most efficient offense in the nation thanks to an assortment of knock-down shooters, a pair of high-quality point guards and a seven-footer in Frank Kaminsky who can do it all on the offensive end. The Badgers’ veteran leadership, experience and slow pace have made them the least turnover-prone offense in the country, which is undoubtedly an asset against a Kentucky D that thrives on taking the ball away. Additionally, Kaminsky’s skill on the perimeter can free up the lane by drawing the Wildcats’ bigs away from the hoop.
Arizona Wildcats: The “other” Wildcats began the season ranked second in the polls, just behind their more heralded brethren. The two teams are similar in several ways, most notably on defense where Arizona ranks among the best in the country thanks to a coterie of long, athletic defenders. They’re one of very few teams who can match up with Kentucky’s size, and Sean Miller’s club features two premier defenders in point guard T.J. McConnell and small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Cats are also a dominant defensive rebounding team, leading the nation by a sizable margin in that category. In addition to an elite defense, Arizona features an efficient offense capable of putting points on the board against anyone.
West Virginia Mountaineers: The 23-8 West Virginia Mountaineers haven’t received a lot of national attention this year, but they’re quietly playing a brand of basketball that could give Kentucky some trouble in the NCAA Tournament. West Virginia’s secret begins with forcing turnovers, something they’ve done far better than anyone else in the country thanks to a frenetic, high-pressure defense. In theory, a high volume of turnovers could allow the Mountaineers to score before Kentucky can get back and set its smothering defense. West Virginia also leads the country in offensive rebounds, which matches up well with Kentucky’s surprising propensity for surrendering offensive boards. They aren’t nearly as talented, but West Virginia has what it takes to be a thorn in Kentucky’s side.