LEXINGTON — Two annual March traditions in Kentucky — John Calipari’s ‘Cats putting together a late-season run and then getting “rewarded” with an absolutely brutal bracket in the NCAA Tournament come selection Sunday.
Kentucky's path to the Final Four: Davidson, then Arizona, then Virginia, then the Warriors, then the 1987 Lakers, then the original Dream Team, then The Monstars.
— Not Jerry Tipton (@NotJerryTipton) March 11, 2018
Last week, Kentucky met both criteria with an impressive SEC Tournament victory that left them as the top No. 5 seed come bracket time. They then ended up in the bracket with the most dangerous No. 4 seed and the top team in the nation. Should they survive that, they’d likely be looking at either one of the nation’s best defensive teams or the opponent they just beat for the SEC crown after losing twice to in the regular season.
It ain’t easy being the Big Blue. But here at SDS, we know better than to pick against the Wildcats come Tournament time. So we’ll break down that difficult path all the way to San Antonio.
Round of 64: No. 12 seed Davidson in Boise
Davidson is becoming one of the sexy upset picks, with ESPN’s FPI rating giving them a 42 percent chance at pulling off this one. But why? Calipari is 81-1 against non-Power 5 opponents at Kentucky. Davidson lost at home to Richmond. They played North Carolina in early December and put together a hot-shooting game, going 14-for-33 from 3. They also got outrebounded by 22 and lost by 10 points. Against the Kentucky team from a month ago, Davidson would have a puncher’s chance. This Thursday? Not so much.
Round of 32: No. 4 seed Arizona in Boise
Arizona is big (center Deandre Ayton), tough (guard Rawle Alkins), and talented (guard Allonzo Trier). This is by far the most dangerous No. 4 seed in the bracket, and one that could reasonably challenge for a Final Four had they themselves not gotten sandwiched with a Kentucky/Virginia pair of matchups. Dirty secret on Arizona is it doesn’t like to play much defense. They were 193rd in the NCAA in 3-point defense, and 238th in turnovers forced. Sure, they’re tough, but they won’t defend Kentucky well enough to outlast them.
Round of 16: No. 1 seed Virginia in Atlanta
Cat-lanta has been good to UK over the years, and if the Wildcats have enough lives to outlast the Arizona brand of felines, they’ll need one more to sneak past Virginia, the top overall seed in the Tournament.
Kentucky went 2-8 this season in games when they were held under 70 points. On the upside, one of the two wins came in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals against Georgia.
Virginia is kind of the opposite of Arizona: The Cavs are elite defensively, but humdrum offensively. UVA is hardly overwhelming on the backboard either. The key to upsetting the Cavs? Perhaps getting Wenyen Gabriel to have another Larry Bird-like effort, as in his 73 percent 3-point shooting in the SEC Tournament. UVA allowed 10 or more treys five times this season. They went 3-2 in those games. They went 28-0 in their other games.
Round of 8: No. 2 seed Cincinnati in Atlanta
The Wildcats and Bearcats rarely meet, but I’m projecting this matchup, in part because after three games in two months, there’s little to add about No. 3 seed Tennessee, and in part, because I think the Bearcats will outlast the Vols.
Cincy is, like UVA, a squad of elite defenders. They also didn’t play a ton of brilliant competition — they lost by 13 to Xavier and got thumped on the backboard in that game. They split with Wichita State and won two of three over Houston. They also lost to Florida. Cincinnati is 276th in the country in free throw shooting. Mick Cronin has also never won a truly big game in March; 2018 seems like a bad time to start.
Final Four: No. 2 seed North Carolina in San Antonio
Carolina is a revenge game waiting to happen. After the Tar Heels broke UK’s heart last March, could they do it again? Well, this Carolina team has its strengths (great rebounding, solid offensive execution, veteran guards), but also has some weaknesses (330th in 3-point defense, committed more turnovers than they forced, lost 10 games). Like much of the rest of the ACC, Carolina won’t defend hard enough to end its season in the winner’s circle. Doesn’t mean this wouldn’t be one stressful matchup though.
National finals: No. 1 seed Villanova in San Antonio
Wildcats vs. Wildcats, and I wrote earlier that I expected Nova to claim the NCAA crown. They’re sleek and smooth offensively, they’re experienced, and they will have shared much less agita than Kentucky will have in making their way to this point.
So what’s UK’s angle?
Simple, Villanova owes them. In 1985, Villanova claimed its first crown as a massive underdog against Georgetown. Experts said Nova would need to shoot 75 percent to win. So they did (78.6 percent), and they pulled a memorable upset, 66-64.
In Lexington, in Rupp Arena.
So how ironic would it be if Kentucky channeled its second half against Alabama (84 percent shooting) to pull its own iconic March upset — this time, at Villanova’s expense.
Unlikely? This projected Tournament run is a path with destruction bordering the Wildcats on all sides. If the hearts of most Wildcat backers see this run going all the way to the end, their minds might struggle to look past Arizona, or definitely Virginia.
But Vegas has the ‘Cats at 15/1 to win, and in the words of the great Jim Carrey, you’re telling me there’s a chance?