NCAA tournament Midwest region preview: Can anyone stop Kentucky?
State of the No. 1 seed
You’ve probably heard that Kentucky, which has mostly breezed to a 34-0 record, is pretty good. The question going into the tournament is how good? Auburn’s Bruce Pearl called this group the best he’s ever coached against, and that includes John Calipari’s 2008 Memphis squad, which finished as national runner-up. There’s chatter that the Wildcats, who allow just 53.7 points per game, might be the best defensive team of all time (they block seven shots a game and hold teams to 35.2% from the field). Per usual, they’re stacked with NBA talent. Junior 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein can defend anyone, freshman Karl-Anthony Towns averages 9.8 points per game in just 20.8 minutes and sophomore Aaron Harrison (team-leading 11.3 scoring average) knows how to come through in the clutch. Last year Harrison hit shots to win or go ahead in three consecutive NCAA tournament games (against Louisville in the Sweet 16, Michigan in the Elite Eight and Wisconsin in the Final Four) on the Wildcats’ march to the NCAA final. Calipari can caution outsiders to not get too high on the his team if he wants, but Kentucky is rolling. It's beaten opponents by an average of 21.1 points, and that streak will continue into Indianapolis.
Taking a 12 over a 5 is easy money, and who doesn’t love a good story? Buffalo, of the Mid-American Conference, is headed to its first NCAA tournament after beating Central Michigan 89-84 in the MAC conference tournament final for an automatic berth. They’re coached by former Duke standout Bobby Hurley, who still holds the NCAA career record for assists. The Bulls are led by 6’7” junior forward Justin Moss (17.7 points, 9.3 rebounds) and 6’1” sophomore guard Shannon Evans (15.4 points,4.7 assists). They won’t be intimidated by a Power Five team, either, because they already know what it’s like to go up against the best: Buffalo lost at Kentucky 71-52 on Nov. 16, and at Wisconsin 68-56, impressive outings for a mid-major picked to finish fourth in its conference. In the round of 64 Buffalo will meet a West Virginia team that has lost three of its last four and allows opponents to shoot 47% from the field. Take the Bulls.
It feels strange to call Wichita State a sleeper, considering it went to the Final Four in 2013 and entered last year's tournament undefeated, but at a 7-seed, that’s exactly what the Shockers are this time around. With four players who average at least nine points per game, Wichita State is balanced offensively. The team is led by junior guard Ron Baker, an All-America candidate who averages 15 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 assists. Fred VanVleet (12.7 points, 5.3 assists) is one of the best guards in college basketball. Efficient defensively and offensively, the Shockers rank 15th and 20th, respectively, in those categories according to kenpom.com. You should root for Wichita State to win its opening game if only to watch the Shockers take on Kansas in the round of 32. Those teams haven’t met since 1992, partially because KU coach Bill Self says he has no interest in scheduling Wichita State. Looks like the committee took care of it for him.
At 6'5", 204 pounds and possessing a terrific sense of where his teammates are, Grant is one of the top players in the country. The senior guard creates shots for himself (16.8 points on 11.2 field goal attempts per game) and the Irish (averaging 6.6 assists per game) and can explode offensively if necessary (he scored 27 points on just 17 shots in a 79-78 win over Michigan State on Dec. 3). Grant can score from anywhere on the floor and loves big games: He had 24 points and 10 assists in Notre Dame’s 90-82 come-from-behind win over North Carolina in the ACC tournament final on Saturday. His play this season has all but erased the memory of last year, when he missed 15 games for an academic suspension. Kentucky looks to be on an inevitable March to the Final Four, but Notre Dame and Grant are an intriguing, albeit undersized, matchup for the Wildcats.
Notre Dame-Kentucky could be a good game ... for about 30 minutes. Expect the Wildcats to come out of the Midwest, and play for a national championship on April 6.