Sunday March 22nd, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It does not take much for Kentucky to destroy an opponent’s will. Ask Hampton, the team the Wildcats beat in the Round of 64 on Thursday. Or Alabama, Florida or Missouri, just three of their victims in SEC play. Or any of the other teams Kentucky vanquished during the regular season. The Wildcats are merciless, a juggernaut notable for their talent and their cohesion. That much was clear late in the first half against Cincinnati on Saturday, when Kentucky delivered what felt, in the moment, like a decisive blow.

With about three minutes remaining before halftime, Kentucky guard Devin Booker rebounded a missed three-point shot from Cincinnati’s Quadri Moore. Booker raced up the floor with Aaron Harrison calling for the ball on the right wing and Tyler Ulis open on the left. As the Bearcats ran back on defense to stop the break, Booker considered taking a shot before picking up his dribble.

He pump-faked, pivoted with his right foot and, after spotting Willie Cauley-Stein loping into the halfcourt, fired a pass to Ulis. Without hesitating, Ulis dropped Cauley-Stein a perfect touch pass. The seven-footer received the ball, took two steps and exploded for a powerful two-hand dunk. “It’s nothing new to us,” Ulis said. “We expect that from him. Just gets us really into the game and hypes up the game more.”

When the dust cleared, Kentucky led by one, the referee assessed a defensive foul and Moore was seated on the court wearing a bemused look that screamed What just happened? He did not re-enter the game.

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Cauley-Stein’s jam came less than two minutes after Cincinnati’s Shaquille Thomas threw down a dunk on a fast break, jogged back down the court and clapped his hands in celebration. A short time later, Twitter was buzzing over the latest number in Cauley-Stein’s growing catalog of highlights and Cincinnati’s upset bid appeared on life support.

The flush sparked a 10-0 Kentucky run and reinforced what seemed inevitable from the outset on Saturday. The Wildcats, with a 64-51 victory over the Bearcats, are advancing to the Sweet 16 as the first 36-0 team in men’s Division I history. They now stand only four wins away from completing the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1975-76.

Saturday’s game followed the script Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin laid out a day earlier.

“It’s just going to be a lot harder to accomplish our goals of being able to stop them, being able to get good shots, being able to rebound the ball,” said Cronin, who has not coached Cincinnati since December while dealing with a non-life threatening vascular condition. “It’s just a lot harder because of their personnel. And the thing about it—teams have done it. They have done it, but they haven’t been able to do it for 40 minutes, and that’s the difference.” 

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Cincinnati could not do “it” for 40 minutes, but it was able to hang with Kentucky early and make things interesting in the second half. One huge problem for the Bearcats was that they don’t possess the offensive firepower—and, in particular, the shooting—to stretch Kentucky’s defense. Cincinnati connected on only two of its 14 attempts from three-point range, made only 36.7 percent of its twos and turned the ball over on 22.6% of its possessions, compared to 11.3% for Kentucky.

Even if Cincinnati shot better from inside and outside the arc, it probably wouldn’t have mattered very much. With Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns patrolling the paint, and others applying ball pressure along the perimeter, the Bearcats repeatedly failed to create clean looks. Consider one possession that took place late in the second half. With Kentucky holding a 12-point lead, Cincinnati guard Troy Caupain dribbled around a screen and dished a pass to Thomas on the left block.

Surrounded by white uniforms, Thomas dribbled aimlessly into traffic, found no avenue toward the basket, then flipped a short pass to Gary Clark, who promptly passed the ball back to Thomas near the three-point line. He dribbled right, created some space with a crossover and drove to the rim, only to have the ball swatted by both Towns and Trey Lyles. The ball was picked up by Cincinnati’s Octavius Ellis, who tried to heave up another shot. He didn’t get it off: Towns was there to force a jump ball.

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“There was always somebody on you,” Cincinnati guard Farad Cobb said. “You know, even when you come off a screen, the big guys are so long that they’re still able to crowd you and kind of make it tough for you to pass or shoot.”

Added fellow Cincinnati guard Kevin Johnson, “The biggest thing about the defense is height—tall team. But honestly, man, a lot of people can overcome it. We should have just finished a lot better, coming to two feet, shot-faking, using the small things to get going as far as finishing around the basket.”

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Kentucky dominating on the defensive end is nothing new. The Wildcats have suffocated opponents all season, and may go down as one of the stingiest units in the modern era. Offensively, the Wildcats were held below their season point-per-possession average, but expect a course correction in their next game. Booker, the Wildcats’ top three-point shooter, missed all five of his long-range attempts and Cincinnati—for all its scoring issues against the Wildcats—checks in as one of the top 20 per-possession defenses in the country.

“The good news is there's enough guys that, if two or three aren't playing well, we can still survive,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “What they learned today is we don't have to shoot the ball well, and we can still survive. You just want them going into every game saying, it doesn't matter what happens. We can still win. And that's the mentality I want them in.”  

If Kentucky's biggest concern coming out of a tournament game is that its shots weren’t falling as frequently as is typical against a good defensive team, then there probably isn’t too much to worry about. With two more wins filed away, and having exposed no keys to defeating them, the Wildcats move forward with their quest for perfection alive and well.

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