Kentucky's length is a problem for almost everybody.
John Clay has a good article today on five teams that could beat Kentucky this year in the NCAA tournament. He and I agree on these five as the most likely threats to defeat Kentucky. They are the Syracuse Orange, Ohio St. Buckeyes, Michigan St. Spartans, Kansas Jayhawks, and North Carolina Tar Heels.
You can read more about John's analysis at the link above. I'm going to give you a one-paragraph reason why these teams are included, and why UK will ultimately prevail. Then, we will move on to three other teams that are not in my top five, but deserve to be in the conversation.
I'm also going to rank them in order of which team would be the most difficult out for Kentucky, not necessarily the team that is most likely to win the NCAA tournament.
Ohio St. is here by virtue of the fact that they are an outstanding defensive squad that can score, much like Kentucky. The Buckeyes sport the gaudiest defensive numbers in the land, have good depth at key positions and are plenty athletic. They also execute with great precision in the half court. Where they are weak is shooting the ball from the perimeter, and free throw shooting, and they have no answer for the length and shot-blocking of Kentucky. But Aaron Craft would give Marquis Teague no end of trouble, and right now, Teague's good play is a big factor in how UK is playing.
Most of you probably expected Syracuse to be here, but Tom Izzo's team has shaken off a rocky start early to become one of the most dominant defensive basketball teams in the land, as well as a dynamite offensive rebounding team. They have on of the nation's outstanding seniors in Draymond Green, and Branden Dawson is a beast on the boards. Where they fall short is shooting the three, and a very high rate of turnovers. They also have no answer for Kentucky's length.
Syracuse is a deep, talented, and well-coached basketball team that can run and defend with the best of them. They have great length, shot blocking, and outstanding athleticism. They are one of two teams in America that actually matches up equally to Kentucky at every position. But Syracuse lacks consistent 3-point shooting, and remind me very much of 2010 UK. They are going to go cold sometime late in March from outside, and that's likely to be their undoing. They also rely on a zone defense, which rarely wins championships.
There is very little difference between North Carolina and Syracuse, except North Carolina doesn't play a zone. The Tar Heels are at least as talented as Kentucky at every position, and they are even longer than the Wildcats, although they are not nearly as good at erasing shots. Where the Tar Heels fall short is on the free throw line and from the 3-point arc, where they have become remarkably unreliable, particularly in conference.
Since we last faced Kansas, they have gone in the other direction from North Carolina and become one of the best teams in the country led by Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. The Jayhawks are an outstanding defensive squad that can do it all, and Taylor is a double-double machine that never disappoints offensively. Where Kansas falls down is a failure to draw many fouls and, like many of the other teams above, vulnerability from the 3-point line. Kansas also tends to put teams on the line too much, and has no answer for Kentucky's overall length.
Other teams that could be in the discussion:
Missouri is this year's Villanova Wildcats of a few years back -- a small-ball team that uses their quickness and athleticism to great advantage, as well as dead-eye shooting from everywhere that makes them the most efficient offensive team in the country. But Missouri's lack of offensive rebounding, their overall average defense, and the fact that teams constructed like this rarely go past the Elite Eight argue against their inclusion. The length of UK would be an unmanageable problem for them.
Baylor was a team with all the buzz earlier this season. They have great size, skill, and athleticism with Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller leading the way. The Bears can do it all -- run, shoot, rebound and defend. However, Baylor has been unable to beat either Kansas and Missouri in two tries, and both those teams are inferior to Kentucky. Baylor turns the ball over way too much, and allows too many offensive rebounds to be likely to defeat UK, and they have no answer for Anthony Davis.
As always, Mike Krzyzewski's team is always in the March discussion, and some have elevated Duke to a #1 seed due to their surprising late-game comeback against North Carolina in the Dean Dome. But that game says way more about North Carolina than Duke, and while everyone can agree it was an impressive comeback, the Blue Devils were clearly an inferior team that got very hot against a weak perimeter defense. Duke suffers from far and away the worst defense in this discussion, and while deadly from the three and very efficient offensively, allow far too many offensive rebounds and lack any depth at all inside. UK's defense would smother them much like the Florida St. Seminoles did.
Well, those are my picks, and that's the way I see our major foes at this admittedly early pre-NCAA point in time. Right now, I think Kentucky has to be among the favorites to win, but there is still a lot of games to play before we come close to seeing the shape of the NCAA tournament field, and who might sit in opposition to NCAA Title #8.