Kentucky reaches historic potential, Notre Dame finds white-hot offense
CLEVELAND—The four most likely national title contenders left in this NCAA tournament are Kentucky, Wisconsin, Arizona and Duke, in that order. The first three of those contenders played on Thursday night. Wisconsin had a scare against North Carolina, but moved on. Arizona had a scare against Xavier, but moved on. What Kentucky did to West Virginia was carnage: a 78-39 rout that in truth commenced the previous day, when word spread that Mountaineers freshman Daxter Miles Jr. proclaimed the Wildcats were soon to be 36-1, thus provoking an often slow-starting juggernaut into roaring off to an 18-2 lead in the game's opening eight minutes, a 44-18 lead by halftime, setting up a second half that wasn't really worth playing. Twenty more minutes were not necessary to confirm yet another strategy that will not succeed against the nation's No. 1-ranked and now 37-0 team. It's evident by now, after two meetings with Arkansas and this massacre of West Virginia, that you cannot press Kentucky and win.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky's junior forward and locker-room philosopher, brushed off text and Twitter warnings about the Mountaineers, who entered the game No. 1 in the nation in turnovers-forced percentage. "I had people telling me, 'Man, their press, their press!' [And] I'm like, 'Dude, come on, get off my phone with their press,'" Cauley-Stein said. "Teams try to press us. It doesn't work. You're gonna give up lobs. You're gonna give up layups. You're gonna give up open shots. That's not the way to beat us. It's funny when you watch the TV on ways to beat us. … [It's] like, what else do you want to add? 'You gotta have rocket shoes so you can jump up and get their balls before they go in the hoop! What else are they going to come up with?"
We have reached the point of the season, after 37 tries and 37 failures, that ending this run will require something extreme. Kentucky's offense can handle pressure; it can usually find someone among its four guards to make shots, and its defense is peerless. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who pulled off the biggest upset of the 2010 Sweet 16 by knocking off the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins version of Kentucky, said the degree of difficulty this time was much higher, even though the '14-15 Wildcats may have fewer future NBA stars. "I don't think that  team guarded the way this team guards," Huggins said. "This team is absolutely fantastic defensively."
Defense is Kentucky's most consistent weapon and the reason this team is historically great. And on Thursday the D was fantastic to the degree that it held West Virginia to 0.613 points per possession—its lowest output of the season—and just 0.154 PPP over the first eight minutes. The Wildcats' Elite Eight opponent, Notre Dame, will not attempt to pressure. The Irish do not currently possess rocket shoes, nor are they likely to find them on short notice in Cleveland, and so what they will try to do is shoot the lights out. The way the bracket is shaking out for Kentucky, it may have to go through the country's three most efficient offenses in order to win the title: No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday, No. 1 Wisconsin in the Final Four and No. 2 Duke in the title game. Historically great defense is about to get tested by wickedly efficient offense.
The king of historically great NCAA tournament offense is Bill Walton, who completed UCLA's undefeated '72-73 season by shooting 21 of 22 from the field in the national title game against Memphis. Among TV analysts Walton is the leading proponent of the theory that Offense Wins Championships; it's something that he espouses in most of his broadcasts for the Pac-12 Network and ESPN. One of Walton's weirdest and best phrasings, "being milked," is another way to describe a glorious offensive hot streak. In a Reddit AMA hours before Thursday's games tipped off, Walton wrote that, "When you're on a great team and you get hot, your teammates milk you dry—they wear you out and there's nothing like being on a great team. ... Never forget—happiness ends when selfishness begins."
Notre Dame occupies a dark place in Walton's college memories, as it was the Irish who ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak in 1974. But I have a feeling he appreciates the way they score as a No. 3 seed in '14-15. Even though Notre Dame's coach, Mike Brey, called his players "cruel competitors" after they beat No. 7-seeded Wichita State, 81-70, what they did to the Shockers was a pure pleasure to watch. Notre Dame did not have an overwhelmingly dominant possession-user like Walton was for UCLA, and instead engaged in a spreadout ballet that had four players score between 15-20 points and the whole team shoot 55.6 percent from the field. No one was selfish and everyone was hot, and thus everyone got milked.
There are two sections of Notre Dame's group-milk worth revisiting. The first opened the game, spanning nine possessions with the following results:
• A Zach Auguste layup
• A Demetrius Jackson three-pointer
• Another Jackson three
• A Pat Connaughton three
• A Connaughton layup
• An Auguste dunk
• An Auguste layup plus made free throw
• A missed three by Steve Vasturia
• A Connaughton layup
The Irish scored an absurd 2.22 points per possession in that stretch to take a 20-7 lead. That's offense at an otherworldly level, coming against a team known for having sound defensive principles. And it wasn't Notre Dame's only hot streak. Fast forward to the 16:40 mark of the second half, when Wichita took its first lead, at 38-37, and what did the Irish do over their next 19 possessions? They started with back-to-back Jackson threes, and I'll save you the remainder of the play-by-play and just add it up: They scored 37 points, or 1.947 points per possession, to open up a 75-56 advantage.
Wichita State is not Kentucky, but Wichita State did have the country's 16th-most efficient defense. It is not the kind of defense prone to giving up extreme offensive runs in the range of two points per possession. As Shockers guard Ron Baker said afterwards, in disbelief, the Irish "shot the cover off of it. … [I've] never seen a team shoot it like they have today."
Shooting runs like that are meteor strikes, highly improbable and calamitous events that can wipe even the best teams out of the bracket. The Shockers know this too well, having upset a No. 1-seeded, title-contending Gonzaga team in the 2013 round of 32 with a run of 23 points in nine possessions, or 2.56 PPP. The last chance of anyone beating Kentucky is with one, or maybe two or three, offensive meteor strikes. Does Notre Dame have that potential? Or Wisconsin? Or Duke? They best hope so, because all of the reality-based strategies seem to have been exhausted.