Kentucky rolled through the regular season unbeaten, but not without revealing a few critical weaknesses. SI identified five teams with the tools to exploit those vulnerabilities and become the ultimate spoiler
March 16, 2015
PERHAPS THIS exercise will look silly a month from now in Indianapolis, when the streamers are shooting from the rafters at Lucas Oil Stadium and the pack of prodigies from Kentucky are lording over college basketball for the second time in four years. Then they will have put an end to the topics that have dominated the 2014--15 season: How great are these Wildcats, and can they become the first team since Indiana in 1975--76 to go undefeated? So tired of the how-to-beat-Kentucky conversation is coach John Calipari that when it was raised by Louisville's Courier-Journal last month, he verged on dismissive. "Who knows what it's going to take?" Calipari said. "If we get dinged, then you'll know what it takes. You'll look at that team and say, 'They did it, and here's what they did.' "
But until Cal is brushing confetti from his coif in Indianapolis, the question remains: Will anyone top these Cats? No team is a match for their size, with four regulars standing at least 6'10" and twin 6'6" starting guards, all of them gifted and mobile. Their defensive prowess and apparent chemistry, especially with so many blue-chippers sharing minutes, makes coaches marvel at their dedication and cohesiveness. And yet, even though Kentucky completed its 31--0 run through the regular season with a 67--50 win over Florida last Saturday, there have been hints on how to deliver the upset of the century.
Ivy League also-ran Columbia, which hasn't beaten a ranked team since the Ford Administration, took a two-point lead into halftime in December by slowing the game to a crawl, clogging the lane to neutralize the Cats' strength inside and forcing lower-percentage jumpers. On Jan. 6, in a game that went to overtime, Ole Miss shot 9 for 17 from beyond the three-point arc and flummoxed Kentucky with a 2--3 zone, a defense against which Cal's crew has proved merely adequate. Four days later Texas A&M extended the Cats for two extra periods by displacing their bigs with ball screens and packing the middle so aggressively that all five Aggies defenders often had a foot in the paint. That these teams provided scares without having the talent of LSU or Florida—both of whom also nipped at Kentucky's heels—suggests, if not vulnerability, then at least the possibility of it, which might give one lucky opponent just the right tools to pull off a seismic shocker. "Enough teams have taken them to the edge that you know it's possible," says Texas assistant Rob Lanier, whose Longhorns lost 63--51 to Kentucky on Dec. 5.
Maybe that team will be adept at offensive rebounding, exploiting the Wildcats' mediocrity on the defensive glass. (Their affinity for shot blocking can hinder box-outs.) Or maybe it will swarm that quartet of bigs—Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns—on defense and draw them away from their rim-protecting duty on offense. Or maybe it will be a team that has a hot hand from three, piling up points at a rate Kentucky can't match. But, as Cal told The Courier-Journal, "I think everybody's tried all that stuff."
Not so fast. SI, after consulting with coaches around the country, has identified the five teams that have what it takes to strike that historic ding. Perfect is still a long way off.
Win probabilities for beating Kentucky on a neutral court calculated by thepowerrank.com
LOW AND SLOW
WIN PROBABILITY 31.3%
FOR ALL the praise that Kentucky's smothering, towering defense receives, another team has been just as stingy, as measured by kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency metric. Combined with the Cavaliers' slow pace—their games average just 58.2 possessions, third lowest in the country through Sunday—this team has produced staggering numbers: Six of Virginia's opponents have failed to clear the 40-point mark, and 14 have scored less than 50.
Yet it's not just how well Virginia defends but how it defends that would bode well. Columbia (yes, that Columbia) played the Wildcats close and Texas A&M took them to double overtime by stuffing the lane with defenders and forcing them to make shots over the top. They couldn't, going a combined 11 for 45 (24.4%) from behind the arc in those two games. But the Lions and the Aggies play off-brand versions of the Pack-Line; Virginia runs it to perfection. In this defense—developed by Dick Bennett at Wisconsin--Green Bay in the early 1990s, now mastered by his son, Tony, in Charlottesville—four Cavaliers remain inside an imaginary 16-foot arc while the fifth pressures the ballhandler, and the packers, such as 6'8" forward Darion Atkins and 6'6" wing Justin Anderson (provided he recovers from an appendectomy performed last Thursday), clog lanes and defend the ball on drives. Post touches and penetrations are hard-earned, leading to drawn-out, grinding possessions in which flustered opponents often settle for undesirable jumpers with a defender's hand in the way. Virginia holds opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 41.2, third best in the nation. "They can break you with their defense," Columbia coach Kyle Smith says of the Cavaliers. "I just think the Kentucky guys' heads might start spinning a little bit."
Offensively, Virginia's deliberate Blocker-Mover motion system is hard to predict because the movers (the primary scoring threats) are so skilled at reading the screens set by the blockers and adjusting to get clean looks at the hoop. The Cavs rarely turn the ball over, and a majority of their points—57.5%—are scored inside the arc. Plus, they are meticulous: An average possession takes 21.1 seconds (ninth longest in the nation). That can spin heads too.
Opponents' points per possession in transition; that's in the 99th percentile nationally.
Offensive rebounding percentage for Gill, which is ninth best in the country.
ACC school—UVa—that has ever won 16 or more league games in consecutive seasons.
HOW IT HAPPENS
Virginia enters the NCAA title game as huge underdog despite being a No. 1 seed. Sophomore point guard London Perrantes sets a plodding pace, preventing the Wildcats from getting into rhythm. Kentucky's bigs struggle to get the ball on the blocks, and junior forwards Anthony Gill (6'8", 230 pounds) and Mike Tobey (7 feet, 253) maintain position when it does get there. Wildcats guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison clank one contested jumper after another, appearing more rattled with every miss. Meanwhile, Anderson and shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon find room for just enough offense to win without breaking 60.
WIN PROBABILITY 26.9%
BRACKETOLOGISTS HAVE been bemoaning the prospect for weeks: Even if Wisconsin ends up as the selection committee's highest No. 2 seed (an increasingly realistic possibility), the emphasis on geography over balance may mean that the Badgers will be placed in the Midwest, along with Kentucky. But an Elite Eight showdown between those teams would be just as unappealing for the No. 1 seed.
Consider Wisconsin's strengths. No team takes better care of the ball than Bo Ryan's; according to kenpom.com, UW leads the nation with a 12.6% offensive turnover rate. By limiting mistakes, the Badgers would be able not only to starve Kentucky's lethal transition offense but also to maximize the number of possessions in which their versatile Swing offense gets off a shot. If the Wildcats' defenders are slow or miscommunicate on their frequent switches—almost every Wisconsin player can shoot a three—7-foot player of the year front-runner Frank (the Tank) Kaminsky can kill them on pick-and-pops. Or, should he draw the attention of multiple defenders, Kaminsky can create looks for point guard Bronson Koenig or forward Sam Dekker, both strong scorers off screens. The 6'4" Koenig, Wisconsin's starting point guard since Traevon Jackson broke his right foot on Jan. 11, has been a revelation in full-time duty; his turnover percentage (12.1) ranked second in the Big Ten among point guards at week's end. (Four other Badgers were in the conference's top 20 as well.) Koenig has also made 45.0% of his threes as a starter, helping him fit in seamlessly with the rest of Wisconsin's shooters. (All five starters shoot at least 32.0% from behind the arc.)
Chief among that group is Kaminsky, who averages 18.4 points and 8.1 boards while making 41.0% of his threes. The Tank could be the ultimate anti-Kentucky weapon, a quality post defender with enough size and strength to hang with the Wildcats' bigs under the boards and with the shooting touch to spread them out on offense, helping to free the paint (somewhat) from Kentucky's ferocious shot blockers.
Percentage of Wisconsin's two-point shot attempts that are blocked, lowest in the country.
Height, in inches, of the average player on the Badgers' roster. Only Kentucky (79.3") is taller.
Badgers starters who rank in the top 125 nationally in offensive efficiency on kenpom.com.
HOW IT HAPPENS
In the Midwest Regional final in Cleveland on March 28, Wisconsin controls the pace by avoiding live-ball turnovers and working its continuity-based attack deep into the shot clock, probing for higher-quality looks than most Kentucky opponents have been able to muster. Kaminsky scores from inside and out while helping to create opportunities for his teammates to knock down three-pointers, and for once the Wildcats can't come up with crucial plays down the stretch. A year after Aaron Harrison bounced Bucky from the Final Four with a late trey, fifth-year senior Josh Gasser repays the favor.
Duke Blue Devils
WIN PROBABILITY 29.7%
ON JAN. 17, against that other Bluegrass blueblood, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski played a wild card. Coming off consecutive losses, and with his Blue Devils practically powerless to protect the paint, Coach K—disciple of Bob Knight, rider of pressure man-to-man to the top of college basketball's alltime wins list—deployed a 2--3 zone for most of a 63--52 win over Louisville. The Cardinals scored just six points inside in the first half and went 4 for 25 from behind the arc for the game. This unexpected wrinkle has since become a staple of Duke's D and could be crucial in determining the outcome of a game against Kentucky.
The Blue Devils' backcourt of 6'1" freshman Tyus Jones and 6'2" senior Quinn Cook has struggled at times to contain guards who attack off the dribble, a vulnerability that could prove fatal against the 6'6" Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew. A zone that moves Duke's point of pickup closer to the top of the key would help halt penetration and force the Wildcats to rely more on their notoriously fickle jump shooting. With freshman center Jahlil Okafor, a vulnerable interior defender, having to confront Kentucky's monstrous talent and depth in the post, any scheme that shifts the battle away from the basket would benefit the pedestrian Duke D (65th nationally, at week's end, in adjusted efficiency).
It's on offense that the Blue Devils make their case as potential Cats tamers. In Okafor, Duke has a singular post scorer who has size (6'11", 270 pounds) as well as a polished array of shot fakes and post moves that could cause trouble even for Kentucky's swat team. (With 215 blocks the Wildcats rank second nationally.) Should coach John Calipari double up on him, Okafor (44 assists) has proved to be a nifty and confident passer, an important weapon with Cook, Jones and 6'6" freshman forward Justise Winslow waiting on the perimeter. (The trio shoots a combined 40.1% from three). Rare is the team that can even approach Kentucky in talent and make its defense work both inside and out. Duke, with eight McDonald's All-Americans of its own and a host of strong scorers, fits the bill.
NCAA team with three freshmen who average more than 10 points per game. Duke's trio combines for 41.6.
Three-pointers made per game by Cook, who leads the ACC. He hits 40.4% of his treys, which ranks fifth.
Field goal percentage for Okafor, which leads the ACC and ranks second nationally.
HOW IT HAPPENS
Okafor works down low for a few early buckets, drawing the attention of Kentucky's defense inward so that Duke's shooters have room to get hot and open up a first-half lead. As the Wildcats apply pressure to try to catch up, Jones and Cook coolly navigate the full-court D and find Winslow and Jefferson for lead-preserving buckets. Down the stretch Karl-Anthony Towns muscles his way toward the basket, but so does Okafor. It's the Blue Devils' freshman who ultimately wins the battle between the college game's two best pro post prospects, allowing Krzyzewski to lift his fifth national championship trophy.
Northern Iowa Panthers
PRIDE OF PACE
WIN PROBABILITY 8.5%
THERE IS controlling tempo; then there is all but strangling it. Northern Iowa has done the latter with remarkable success this season. The Panthers' average of 57.4 possessions at week's end ranked 350th—second to last—in Division I. They spend 87.9% of their offensive possessions and 90.2% of their defensive possessions in the half-court, per Synergy Sports data. And here they are, slow-playing their way to a 30--3 record through Sunday and a likely No. 4 seed in the Big Dance.
Northern Iowa insists that opponents do things the hard way. For those that aren't comfortable patiently searching for a good shot—like, say, Kentucky, whose average time of possession is 17.6 seconds—the nights grow long against coach Ben Jacobson's crew. The Wildcats score 23.1% of their points off the fast break, but the Panthers' modified Pack-Line surrenders precious few transition looks. On offense Northern Iowa happily grinds away, which mostly means swinging the ball until it finds point-forward Seth Tuttle, then letting him work. The 6'7", 240-pound senior leads the team in scoring (15.3), rebounding (6.8) and assists (3.3). He uses 30.1% of Northern Iowa's possessions and gets a touch on nearly every offensive trip. This inside-out style can be difficult for teams to adjust to, especially because the savvy Tuttle is one of the most efficient players in the country, ranking right with stars such as Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer and Utah's Delon Wright.
When defenses do collapse on Tuttle the Panthers have an underrated weapon in 6'9" senior Nate Buss, who has lofted more threes (91) than twos (90) and has a per-40-minute scoring rate of 17.4 points, second only to Tuttle's 20.4. It's true that the Panthers rely on one player more than any other ranked team, which can make them highly vulnerable when their mainstay struggles. But Tuttle, a rare big man who can direct his team's offense, will prove difficult for Kentucky's big men to figure out.
Panthers who shoot 40% or better from behind the arc; seven shoot 37.9% or better.
Points per possession in spot-up situations, which ranks in the 89th percentile nationally.
Effective field goal percentage (which gives extra weight to threes) for Tuttle, 10th in the country.
HOW IT HAPPENS
In this Sweet 16 matchup at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the Panthers stifle the pace and hold their own on the glass despite having no rotation players taller than 6'9". Buss and Wes Washpun connect on a string of threes to open up a slim second-half lead. Every possession then becomes life or death—stakes that are much more comfortable for Northern Iowa—and brackets go bust throughout the land.
WIN PROBABILITY 33.4%
SINCE ARRIVING in Tucson in April 2009, coach Sean Miller has attracted elite talent: According to Rivals.com, his last five recruiting classes have included 15 four- or five-star prospects. The last two seasons the Wildcats have not only become consistent title contenders but have also ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They've been especially strong on D; a year ago Arizona finished No. 1 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 88.5 points per 100 possessions. The results are even better this season: 86.9 points at week's end, third to only Virginia and Kentucky.
The Wildcats' goal is to take away the fast break and force teams to run their sets. According to Synergy Sports data, 88.8% of the Wildcats' defensive possessions are spent in the half-court, which takes maximum advantage of Arizona's abundant athleticism and length. The pressure begins on the wings with 6'7" freshman Stanley Johnson and spills into a frontcourt that features 6'7" sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6'9" junior Brandon Ashley and 7-foot junior Kaleb Tarczewski. This makes Arizona one of the few teams that can compete with Kentucky under the basket. And don't forget about senior point guard T.J. McConnell, a classic pest who gets a steal on 4.2% of his defensive possessions.
If the Wildcats are less polished at the offensive end, they are still very efficient—11th in the country with 116.0 points per 100 possessions—and diversified. Johnson, the team's leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, is a slasher with enough range (35.3% from three) to make the defense respect him on the perimeter. At 245 pounds, the Stanimal has the speed and the size to challenge Kentucky's bigs, and he doesn't take many bad shots. Ashley is a reliable option on the blocks (.932 points per post-up, good for the 78th percentile nationally) and has a silky midrange jumper. Off the bench, 6'3" junior Gabe York isn't a premier marksman (38.5%), but defenses must be aware of his ability to stretch the floor. Having so many offensive weapons gives Arizona the best chance of any team to emerge as the top Cats in this matchup.
Percentage of field goals assisted by McConnell when he's on the floor, fifth in the nation.
Points averaged by Tarczewski since Feb. 1, which is up from 8.6 the rest of the season.
Percentage of available offensive boards grabbed by the Cats' opponents, lowest nationally.
HOW IT HAPPENS
REBOUNDING—a strength all season for the Wildcats—is underlined by the coaching staff on the locker room whiteboard before the national semifinal game in Lucas Oil Stadium. Tarczewski, Johnson and Ashley take the message to heart and dominate the glass, which limits easy putbacks and transition chances for Kentucky, and forces the other pack of Wildcats to grind out possessions against Arizona's front line. Johnson and York have hot hands from the outside, and McConnell comes up with crucial steals late in the game to deny Kentucky a third title shot in four years.
No team can match the Wildcats' size, with four regulars standing at least 6'10", all of them gifted and mobile. But "enough teams have taken them to the edge that you know it's possible," says a Texas assistant.