As part of its preview of the 2015 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, SI.com is taking a look at all 68 teams in the field. RPI and SOS data from realtimerpi.com. Adjusted offense and defense are from kenpom.com and measure the number of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, and the team’s national rank. All stats are through Monday, March 16.
Record: 34-0 (18-0 SEC)
Adjusted offensive/defensive efficiency: 119.9 (5th)/85.7 (2nd)
Seed: Midwest No. 1
Impact player: Karl-Anthony Towns, freshman, forward. 9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg,
The Case For: Well, it begins with the 34 wins and the zero losses. The Wildcats have ridden a roster that is huge and deep and talented and selfless to the brink of history. They’ve also deployed that roster to asphyxiate teams defensively, ranking No. 2 in efficiency on that end. A backline featuring 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, the 6’11" Towns, 6’10" Trey Lyles and 7-foot Dakari Johnson is a tremendous failsafe if Kentucky’s shooting sags; Kentucky ranks second nationally with a block percentage of 5.8. If opponents can’t score, they’ll have a tough time capitalizing on a bad day for the Wildcats.
And coach John Calipari’s crew is unfazed by pressure. Kentucky won in double-overtime at Texas A&M and came back from nine down against both Florida and Georgia—and no one will soon forget Aaron Harrison’s game-sealing, last-minute daggers against Michigan and Wisconsin in last year’s tournament. No player averages more than 25.8 minutes per game, but nine players have usage rates between 16.9 and 25.8, so Kentucky is equipped to thrive on quick tournament turnarounds or through foul problems. What’s not to like?
The Case Against: Commence the picking of nits. There are four members of the rotation—two of them starters, in Towns and Lyles—who haven’t played a single NCAA tournament game. How they act when they know there is no tomorrow after a loss is an unknown. Besides Devin Booker (42.9%), there’s no real formidable threat from long range; Tyler Ulis shoots 41.8% but has attempted just 67 three-pointers and Aaron Harrison is at 31.0%. If teams pack in the defense and pray, Kentucky may need better long-range effectiveness to loosen things up.
Meanwhile, Lyles, Johnson and Cauley-Stein are all sub-70% free throw shooters, which could be meaningful in a close game. And then there’s the less measurable issue of the pressure mounting—game after game, round after round—as they approach becoming the first undefeated team since Indiana in 1975-76. So far, the Wildcats have handled that with aplomb. Who knows what will occur when the angst ramps up.
SI prediction: Beat Hampton in the Round of 64, beat Purdue in the Round of 32, beat West Virginia in the Sweet 16, beat Wichita State in the Elite Eight, beat Arizona in the Final Four, beat Duke for the national championship