The Wildcats, to anyone who owns two eyes and the least smidgeon of basketball knowledge, clearly stand out as the best team in the country this season. Period. As Big Blue Nation descends upon the city of New Orleans in a tidal wave of blue shirts and high hopes, the Cats almost have the championship in the bag. Almost.
Twice this year, though, this super team, this unbeatable force, this blue blur of basketball Godliness, has faced its Kryptonite, watching two lesser teams and their exuberant fans rush the court and celebrate the temporary defeat of college basketball’s Goliath. Indiana and Vanderbilt won fair and square. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the Final Four, they unveiled the game plans that can dethrone the soon-to-be crowned Kings of the court. Now, Calipari and his team know where they are vulnerable. They’ll be ready for the Kryptonite.
That being said, the teams remaining in the Final Four do possess some qualities that should give the Big Blue Nation a moment of pause. When Kentucky fell to the Hoosiers and the Commodores, a door was opened, leading to the ultimate possibility that this amazing team can be beaten. Formulas for success against the Cats were crudely scribbled on the courts on those fateful nights, and Louisville, Kansas, and Ohio State hope to take advantage.
In Indiana, the writing on the wall wasn’t that hard to decipher. Three glaring statistics clearly displayed why Indiana ultimately hit the winning shot that would end up haunting Cats fans the entire season (thanks to an ESPN commercial). One: Anthony Davis only played 24 minutes in that game and was subsequently held to six points (He averages around 32 minutes/game and over 14 points). Two: Indiana shot an incredible 60% from beyond the arc, including the infamous game winner that shook the house (UK opponents averaged a 3P% of 31.8). Three: Kentucky turned the ball over 16 times (they average closer to 11).
Kentucky should be safe from an Indiana-like assault in the Final Four. All three teams remaining fall outside the Top 200 in the nation in three-point shooting and are unlikely to approach the over 50% mark. However, the turnovers and keeping Anthony Davis in check could be an issue –keep that in mind.
The Vanderbilt formula is slightly more problematic. In the SEC Championship game, the big men of Vanderbilt came to play. Vanderbilt brought down 36 rebounds that night, about 5 rebounds more than Kentucky opponents averaged this season. Taylor and Ezeli both had big games and kept Davis from completely taking over, holding him to 12 points and making sure he spent as much time on the floor as he did around the rim.
If Kentucky can prove vulnerable due to turnovers and being beaten around the glass, as indicated by their only two losses, then they’ve drawn a tough crowd to join them in the Final Four. All three teams are top 10 in the country in rebounding, averaging over 37 rebounds per game. All three teams also force an average of 14 turnovers or more, compared to UK’s average of 11.
Against Michigan State, a number one seed featuring Draymond Green, Louisville forced 15 turnovers and brought down 34 rebounds. Against top seeded North Carolina, Kansas held Zeller to six rebounds while grabbing 40 rebounds of their own. Ohio State dominated Syracuse on the boards, but with the absence of Fab Melo, that could easily be an anomaly. At the end of the day, though, these three teams are among the best in the country at rebounding and forcing turnovers –two key ingredients to the only Wildcat losses.
Luckily for UK, two of these opponents are old news. For example, they already know that Louisville’s Dieng doesn’t stand much of a chance against Anthony “The Brow” Davis. In their first meeting, Davis only played 27 minutes but dominated the game and finished with a double-double. Despite winning the turnover battle, Louisville gave up 49 rebounds to the Wildcats. That won’t cut it…so don’t expect the Cardinals to cut the nets.
Kansas and Ohio State, though, pose a serious threat. Even though Kentucky out-rebounded Kansas in the early-season victory, they did so while Kansas’ best big man Thomas Robinson played only 27 minutes. Thomas Robinson is a presence beneath the glass, and could threaten to follow the Vanderbilt tradition and rough him up while bringing down lots of boards. Zeller was a non-factor for much of the UNC game. If Kansas can render Davis back to human status and force some turnovers, this rematch could be scarily close for the UK faithful.
Ohio State poses a very similar threat. Jared Sullinger is unarguably one of the best big men in college basketball, averaging over 9 rebounds a game by himself and playing at a level that few can match. Davis is one of those few, but Sullinger certainly has the size and strength to make things more difficult for The Brow. Ohio State, in many ways, appears to be the team no one is talking about. Don’t ignore them. With Syracuse losing Fab Melo, Ohio State hasn’t faced an opponent that strikes fear in the hearts of Wildcat fans. However, they certainly have the potential to pull a Vanderbilt-Indiana combo and deliver a shocking knockout to the tournament favorites.
That is what is both so terrifying and so exhilarating about March Madness. It’s one game…and you’re out. The Wildcats are the best team. The Wildcats will likely win this championship. But there are no guarantees. The smallest factors can tip the scale, and impossible upsets become reality. The Wildcats have proven, time and time again, that they are the best team to grace a hardwood floor in college basketball this year.
Twice, they’ve proven that their dominance can, for a night, be diminished. This article is but a warning, a disclaimer –a point that Calipari is likely driving home to his team in the locker room: We can be beat.
But I’d like to see them try.
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