Which teams or players could challenge Kentucky in its pursuit of an undefeated, national championship season?
This is Kentucky’s tournament, everyone else is just playing in it. The Wildcats entered the Big Dance as nearly equal betting favorites with the field, which is remarkable considering that this is the least predictable postseason in American sports. Kentucky, by nature of its not having lost a game, has an aura of invincibility. Its roster sheet alone is intimidating to many teams, but there’s a secret mental advantage to playing the Wildcats. They have everything to lose in this tournament, and no team in the country has anything to lose when playing them. If Kentucky doesn’t finish this season at 40-0, many will view it as a failure. If any team beats the Wildcats, it will earn a place in the history books regardless of what else it does.
That’s why on Wednesday West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles guaranteed a win over Kentucky. If he’s right, he and the Mountaineers are heroes. If he’s wrong? Hardly anyone outside of Lexington will remember by the time the Elite Eight is over. The Mountaineers are the next team to get a crack at Kentucky, but below are the three players and three teams we believe could give the Wildcats the most trouble in their pursuit of perfection.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
If you could see past a pair of exceptional big men in the player of the year battle, you’d find Grant right behind them. Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky are the clear frontrunners for postseason hardwood, but Grant, arguably the nation's best point guard, has made a surprising and convincing run for third place. Notre Dame’s offense revolves around Grant more than Duke’s does around Okafor and even more than Wisconsin’s does around Kaminsky. Notre Dame’s spacing relies on Grant knowing when to shoot, drive or kick out. And beyond that, he calls plays on the court and often during timeouts. When he is hitting his jumpers, there are very few solutions for him defensively.
There is no established model for beating Kentucky, of course, because the Wildcats haven’t lost. But if a team does take them down, it will need to have a strong shooting night from outside. In Pat Connaughton (42.7%), Demetrius Jackson (41.7%) and Steve Vasturia (40.7%), Notre Dame has three players capable of getting hot from beyond the three-point line and breaking open a game. Grant only shoots 32.0% from deep, but when he’s feeling it, his range is ... the parking lot, as Duke found out when it lost for the first of two times this season against the Fighting Irish. Kentucky has been outstanding against the three this season—it ranks third nationally by allowing just 27% from deep—but there’s not much you can do to prevent a shot like this:
Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Okafor isn’t the best offensive player in the country—I firmly believe that title belongs to Kaminsky—but he is the most unique. In Sports Illustrated last week, Luke Winn profiled Okafor and his arsenal of offensive moves, which he has been learning since middle school. He idealizes the greats like Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon, and his range of post moves evidences his affection. The Wildcats boast four players—6'10" Trey Lyles, 6'11" Karl-Anthony Towns and 7-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein—but none of them have defended a player like the 6'11" Okafor.
“The kid is a perfectionist,” his father, Chuck, told Winn. “I used to want him to step out because he’s so skilled, but he wants to do what’ll give him the best chance of going 100% in a game.”
Amazingly, Okafor managed to avoid taking a single three-pointer this season. Instead, he established position in the post well before receiving the ball and finished at the rim 66.9% of the time. During the season, he’s improved in three areas on offense. As Winn writes, he’s mastered the Timmy D—Duncan’s signature 15-foot bank that punishes opponents who slag. He also has become a better passer out of double teams, as you can see in this gif:
And his ballhandling has even been on display lately. He’s no Olajuwon yet, but as you can in the below clip from Sunday's Round of 32 win over San Diego State, he's capable of taking his man in iso from the three-point line to the rack. (Hover to start the GIF.)
Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Johnson has been causing matchup problems for opponents since high school, where he played every position on the floor, and he emerged as a freshman this year to address Arizona’s main weakness—manufacturing points. His offensive game is based less on open looks and more on dribble penetration. He also draws 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes and is a 73.6% free throw shooter.
On defense, Kentucky has very few weaknesses, but it doesn’t have a natural matchup for a long wing like the 6’7” Johnson. This is where Kentucky would miss Alex Poythress, who was lost for the year with a torn ACL in December. Johnson is a freshman and is still prone to having off nights, like his 1-for-12 performance in the Round of 32 against Ohio State. But since March, his average offensive rating has been 111.0. The game against the Buckeyes is the exception, not the rule with Johnson.
Duke Blue Devils
Let’s start right back in with the Blue Devils, the No. 1 seed in the South. Okafor is the centerpiece of the offense, but Duke is by no means a one-man show. The Blue Devils only run eight deep, but no one has an offensive rating below 111.5. In the backcourt, they have a veteran sharpshooter in senior Quinn Cook (40.7% from three) and, in Tyus Jones, a freshman who is poised beyond his years. Jones seems to be better when the spotlight is brightest. His season-long offensive rating is 122.2, but in the six times Duke has played kenpom.com top-15 teams, it's 132.5.
Duke also has an X-factor in freshman wing Justise Winslow, who would cause similar matchup problems as Arizona's Johnson. Winslow excels in transition, where he puts up 1.44 points per possession. It may not surprise you to learn that Kentucky’s transition defense is excellent, but still—if you’re 6’6” and intend on finishing at the rim, it would behoove you to beat the 7-footers there in the first place.
Remember the brief scare Cincinnati gave Kentucky in the Round of 32? Imagine a more talented opponent executing a similar gameplan. Virginia and Kentucky have gotten most of the defensive attention this season, but Arizona over the last two seasons has played the Pack-Line defense to near perfection. This year, the Arizona finished third in adjusted efficiency, and only 1.3 points behind Kentucky.
In 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski and 6'9" Brandon Ashley, Arizona has excellent post defenders who can help to neutralize Kentucky’s height advantage, and quality perimeter defenders to prevent dribble penetration. Offensively, senior guard T.J. McConnell makes very few mistakes (71 turnovers this season) and is a capable outside shooter (34.3%). The X-factor is Gabe York, who erupted for 19 points on 5-of-9 three-point shooting against Ohio State in the Round of 32. If he is hot from outside and Arizona locks down on defense, Kentucky could be in trouble.
The second tallest team in the country, Wisconsin can flex into its Redwoods lineup that features four players who are at least 6'8”: Nigel Hayes (6'8") plays the two, Sam Dekker (6'9") the three, Duje Dukan (6’10” ) the four and Frank Kaminsky (7-foot) stays at center. The most intriguing thing about this lineup, though, is that the Badgers can still play outside-in basketball from it. Kaminsky, of course, is a threat from three, making 40.7%, while Hayes (39.3%), Dekker (32.1%) and Dukan (31.4%) also have respectable perimeter games.
Should the Badgers face the Wildcats, we'd be able to see the nation’s best offensive player, Kaminsky, against the best defensive player, Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, who can defend the perimeter as well as the paint. But if the Badgers draw Cauley-Stein and another big man like Karl-Anthony Towns outside, they can open significant lanes for slashers like Dekker and point guard Bronson Koenig. The matchup of the most efficient offense of the kenpom.com era (2001-02) against one of the best defenses of the three-point era (1986-87) could be the most fun game of the tournament.