This NCAA tournament is an irresistible battle between Kentucky and Everybody Else. This may mean Kentucky is in trouble. It’s hard to be the favorite, harder to be the overwhelming favorite, and harder still to be the overwhelming favorite in a single-elimination event when the competitors are college students.
As you fill out your bracket, that’s the first big question:
Do you take Kentucky, or pull a name from Everybody Else?
[daily_cut.college basketball]The Wildcats are the best team. They have the most talent, and may have the deepest set of big men in the history of the game. And it would be easy to say that Kentucky’s players coast on talent, have their eye on the NBA, or are simply too young, because that has been occasionally true of John Calipari’s teams. But it is certainly not true of this Kentucky team. This Kentucky team plays relentlessly and unselfishly, and is led by a junior, Willie Cauley-Stein. Freshmen talent is spread through the roster but it’s mostly complementary.
And yet ...
Well, there are very good reasons to wonder if Kentucky will do what Kentucky is supposed to do. Start with the Southeastern Conference, which does not have any other teams in the top 25 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The only SEC teams in the field: a 5 (Arkansas), a 10 (Georgia), a 9 (LSU), and a co-11 (Mississippi, which is in the play-in game).
A mediocre conference does not mean Kentucky is mediocre. Only a fool would say that. It doesn’t even mean Kentucky is overrated. But it does mean this: In the last three months, Kentucky has not been forced to elevate its game to the highest level.
That’s not the Wildcats’ fault. But it could be a problem after Kentucky cruises through the first two rounds.
As great as the Wildcats are, they do have flaws. This is not a great shooting team. Entering the tournament, Kentucky is 136th in the country in three-point percentage, at 35%. And Kentucky is 263rd in the country in three-pointers made per game, with 5.4.
When the Wildcats have struggled this year (by their standards, anyway), shooting was usually the culprit. They missed 10 of 12 threes in a 71-69 win at LSU and 11 of 15 in a tight win at Georgia. They shot just 28.1% from the field in a double-overtime win at Texas A&M.
Opponents can’t out-run or out-jump Kentucky, and good luck matching Kentucky’s energy for 40 minutes. But if anybody can turn the game into a shooting contest, suddenly Kentucky becomes vulnerable.
Who can do that? Perhaps Wisconsin, in a rematch of last year’s epic national semifinal.
And while Kentucky has the most talent, ask yourself this: If the Wildcats are tied with Duke with five minutes to play, who will have the most talent on the floor? At that point, Kentucky’s eighth and ninth NBA prospect probably don’t matter, unless the Wildcats are in serious foul trouble. Duke has the likely No. 1 overall pick (Jahlil Okafor), a likely lottery pick in Justise Winslow and a probable first-round pick in Tyus Jones. And when all three are clicking, they are as tough to guard as anybody in the country.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski should understand. In 1991, he faced an unbeaten UNLV team in the Final Four. UNLV was the overwhelming favorite. Duke won, of course. The pressure probably got to UNLV, and looking back, that Duke team (with Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, all NBA lottery picks) had as much talent as UNLV.
Kentucky will have enormous weight on its admittedly broad shoulders: any loss, and the season is a failure. People would talk about it for decades. That’s the problem with taking an unbeaten record into the NCAA tournament. When you have lost, you know there are worse things. But when you haven’t lost, the mere idea of it can scare the heck out of you.
Look: Maybe none of this will matter. Maybe Kentucky is so good, so cohesive, so well-coached and just so much better than Everybody Else, and Kentucky will win the national championship anyway. It sure seems that way to a lot of people now.
But there will be a moment in this tournament when the Wildcats are against the ropes, under the gun, backed up to a wall, and knee-deep in clichés. That’s when Kentucky will have to earn its championship. And that is what makes March so great.