The Kentucky Wildcats are the NCAA Basketball odds favorites to win the NCAA Tournament this season, but which teams have the best chances of upsetting the undefeated favorites? We take a look at the top contenders and help you decide if any are worth backing with your NCAA Tournament picks.
It’s that lovely adage in sports. Anybody can beat anyone on any given night. Plenty of strong teams have fallen to bad teams this year and every other season. I mean we saw Kentucky blow out Kansas by 32 on a neutral court only to end up in double OT against Texas A&M.
Tournament play brings about its own set of rules. Prep time is cut, a loss means the end of a season, and let’s be honest; it takes a lot to win six games in a row against tournament caliber teams. We must ask ourselves; do the Kentucky Wildcats poses what it takes to pull of this feat on one of sports biggest stages?
Let’s take a look at some of their biggest threats and decide if they are worthy of being backed with our NCAA Basketball picks in this year's Big Dance.
If we are going to talk about who is most likely to beat Kentucky, we obviously have to start with the Virginia Cavaliers. This is not just because of their strong record, but mostly because of the way they play the game. All the talk out of Lexington seems to surround Kentucky’s size and length, especially in their frontcourt, and this Wildcats team is one that looks to penetrate first, but that might be easier said than done against the defensive-minded Virginia team.
The Cavaliers run a Pack-Line defensive scheme; one actually pioneered by UVA coach Tony Bennett's father back in his days at Green Bay. Essentially, the Cavaliers hope that every ball handler sees three defensive jerseys in front of him at all times, forcing him to either defer to another player on the perimeter or take a shot over a defender's head. Kentucky might be the top team in the country, but they actually don’t shoot that well from the outside, so if the Cavaliers can force Kentucky to abandon its strategy of dumping the ball inside to its big guys for easy points, Virginia can gain the advantage.
While I do see the Virginia defense giving the Wildcats a headache, where the Cavaliers do fall short is in the size department. Again, Kentucky is big, and the Cavaliers are going to have problems getting inside and putting up points against this team, and given the way the Wildcats have guarded the three-point line this season, I don’t believe the Cavaliers would be able to fight back from a deficit should they fall behind to the nation's No. 1 team early in the game.
It is also worth noting that Kentucky’s half-court defense is the best in the country. If you can’t beat them down the floor for quick points, you’re going to have to be patient and wait for a good look. Virginia will have to either shoot early or late in the shot clock. Nowhere in-between.
Now if we wanted to look at the BPI rankings, Wisconsin has the best chance of any team in the country (28 percent) to beat Kentucky on a neutral court. The Badgers bring a unique challenge, in that they actually play at the second slowest pace among major-conference teams.
The Badgers rank second nationally in opponent-adjusted net efficiency only behind Kentucky, based on the stats posted at kenpom.com, a measure of the points per 100 possessions by which a team outscores its opponents.
This is a team that likes to dictate the pace of the game and force its opponent to make adjustments. Kentucky hasn’t had to come from behind very often this season, and when doing so, the games ended with close results. If the Badgers can get an early jump on them, we could see the inexperience start to show for the young Kentucky team.
Wisconsin’s frontcourt of Dekker, Hayes and Kaminsky all match up well with Kentucky. Kaminsky is really tough to stop, even for a guy as skilled as Stein. Dekker is really tough to match up against at small forward, and Hayes is probably of the most improved players in the nation. Much like Kentucky, they don’t commit turnovers, they don’t allow second shots, and they are disciplined, meaning that you cannot count on many foul shots. Oh yeah… they also have plenty of guys who can burn you with the three.
Rather than looking to go through Kentucky’s D, Wisconsin will look to go around them and try to spread the floor open a bit, forcing Kentucky to think a bit quicker than they might be used to.
On the other side of the argument, Kentucky did beat Wisconsin last season, and this Badgers team doesn’t look all that different from the squad we saw them put on the floor last year. Kentucky on the other hand, entered the NCAA Tournament as an 8th seed last season with 11 losses to their name, so it’s pretty clear which of these two teams has improved the most since their last meeting. This game might deserve backing a Wisconsin ATS cover, but again, this Kentucky team should have the answers to everything that Wisconsin throws their way.
DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Duke obviously has to come into the conversation, but do we honestly think that the Blue Devils matchup well with the Wildcats? Look, I was born in a Duke Hospital and raised a Duke fan. Duke has an impressive record and a solid ranking, but something about this team doesn’t convince me. Oh they are good, don’t get me wrong, but they tend to rely on the three ball too much, and this is exactly where Kentucky likes to focus its defensive efforts. Duke attempts an average of 20 three-point attempts per game, sinking 7.6, so let’s say… good for about 23 points. The Blue Devils have struggled inside the paint recently, and this will play right into the hands of Calipari’s team, and Duke's misses will turn into those transition scoring opportunities that Kentucky loves so much.
Duke proved its ability to keep its composure, as they managed to fight back from a 15-point deficit against Notre Dame on Saturday, but the team ultimately fell short. As a team, they shot 45% in the paint and 17.6 outside the arc, getting 28 from Okafor. We saw the Blue Devils rely on late-game heroics to close the gap in this game, as well in their victories against Virginia and UNC, but this exit strategy will not exist when facing Kentucky.
The one positive… Duke did earn an extra day of rest heading into the tournament… and that can be valuable.
There is an entire group of second tier teams whose names are being tossed in the mix. Arizona, Gonzaga, UNC, these teams all have the skill and potential to make deep runs in this year’s tournament. Arizona lacks depth and experience, while the Tar Heels lack consistency. Gonzaga, on the other hand has not really proven that it can beat a worthy opponent. They did take Arizona to overtime, but the only ranked team they have beaten was an over ranked SMU team. People keep trying to get me to bite on this Gonzaga team, and maybe I just need to watch them play a full game to understand the hype. We always want to be the first to pick this year’s Cinderella, and it just seems that Gonzaga is the team getting that label in my circles at this point.
That’s the beauty of March Madness. Upsets do happen. Upsets will happen. One thing that is guaranteed is that three of the No. 1 seeds will not win the title. It is worth noting that since the tournament expanded to its current capacity in 1985, only 40.5-percent of No. 1 seeds have made it as far as the Final Four.
Again, when we talk about brackets from a sports betting point of view, there is little to no value in backing the heavy favorite in this situation, so many sports bettors are looking to place their money on these second tier teams and then hedge their bets with a play on Kentucky. I personally love this strategy, but I would have to see the bracket layout before deciding which team I would use.
Feeling risky? Wichita State as a 7th seed looks to have a favorable draw, and could avoid Kentucky until the Elite Eight. It's a long shot. But again, what is March Madness without a little bit of 'madness' right?
NCAA Tournament Seeding Trends
1 vs. 16: 56-0 SU, 27-27-2 ATS, 81.6-57.4, +24.2
2 vs. 15: 52-4, SU, 25-29-2 ATS, 75.2-59.5, +15.6
3 vs. 14: 51-5 SU, 31-23-2 ATS, 72.5-61.2, +11.3
4 vs, 13: 43-13 SU, 29-26-1 ATS, 74.4-65.2, +9.2
5 vs. 12: 30-26 SU, 24-31-1 ATS, 71.3-67.9, +3.4
6 vs. 11 34-22 SU, 27-28-1 ATS, 68.4-66.0, +2.4
7 vs. 10: 35-21 SU, 32-24 ATS, 70.3-66.8, +3.5
8 vs. 9: 30-26 SU, 28-26-2 ATS, 69.9-69.3, +0.6