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NCAA Bracket 2017: Kentucky Basketball’s Perilous Path To Phoenix

There is no question that Kentucky got one of the toughest roads to the Final Four of any of the contenders in this tournament. How do the Wildcats match up, and what will it take to make it to Phoenix?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Kentucky vs Arkansas
The Wildcats have finally come together as a team down the stretch. They will have to continue to do so if they hope to navigate arguably the toughest roads to the Final Four of any title contender this season.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

If you were on Twitter when the South Region bracket was released, odds are you saw some language that should not be repeated around children. That said, it wasn’t completely unwarranted.

Kentucky was the fifth-rated team by the NCAA selection committee, and their reward was a region that contained arguably the best three-seed in the tournament, a possible second-round matchup with the most under-seeded team in the tournament in Wichita State, and an extremely difficult rematch with North Carolina.

Compared to other regions, there is a good reason to feel angst as a Wildcat fan.

When you dig into the numbers, there are reasons to feel apprehensive, but also reasons to have some confidence that Kentucky can get to the regional final in Memphis, where they would likely face North Carolina. Let’s break down what will likely stand in Kentucky’s way to that rematch with UNC, and a trip to Phoenix and the 2017 Final Four.

First Round: Northern Kentucky (24-10, 15 seed) - UK favored by 19

This is the only match-up we know for sure will happen. If they were playing anybody else in this tournament, most of us would root for NKU to see them do well in their first appearance. However, there is no room for sentiment here. This is a game that Kentucky should win easily—and needs to, for reasons I will discuss shortly.

According to the Ken Pomeroy rankings, the Norse are the 147th ranked team in the nation, with the 133rd ranked adjusted offense and the 187th ranked adjusted defense. More importantly, their adjusted tempo is 191st in the nation, whereas Kentucky’s is the 16th—the highest in the Calipari era by far since the John Wall team. In the previous six seasons, the Wildcats ranked no higher than 147th, which means this team does their best when they can run. The Norse average 14 turnovers per game

It will be important for Kentucky to defend inside because NKU simply cannot shoot from downtown, and we may see Calipari dare them to win via the long ball. NKU has four players scoring ten or more points per game, and only one of them shoots higher than forty percent from beyond the arc. Kentucky will also have a solid height advantage, with no player for the Norse standing taller than 6’7”.

Predicted Result: UK needs to jump on the first-time tournament team, put them away early, and rest up for Sunday. I believe that UK takes care of business and wins handily.

Second Round: Wichita State (30-4, 10 seed)

Kentucky fans will be rooting heavily for Dayton on Friday, and for very good reason: Wichita State should not be a ten seed. They shouldn’t be close to a ten seed. The committee uses RPI, which has them ranked thirty-first. However, the RPI sucks, so let’s look at more updated and reliable rankings. They are the eighth ranked team overall in the KenPom rankings, and sit eleventh in the Sagarin ratings. This team is woefully under-seeded, much to the chagrin of everyone in the bottom half of the South region. While Dayton will give them a fight, they are projected by Sagarin to cover the seven-point spread against the Flyers, over seventy-five percent of the time. Therefore, we will focus on the Shockers.

Wichita State is the third best three-point shooting team in the nation, something that will give Dayton fits and that will have Calipari waking up screaming in his sleep. They are a very balanced team, with six players averaging between seven and twelve points, and nine players averaging at least five per game. Of those nine players, six of them shoot at least thirty-eight percent from outside, which means it will be vital that defenses don’t leave anybody open outside. This means that it will be very important for Kentucky to stay out of foul trouble, as the Wildcats will need their top players on the floor.

Wichita State have won their last ten games by at least fifteen points each, and have won fifteen games in a row. Despite the spread being only 6.5 points, I do not see them having a ton of trouble with Dayton, not after destroying an Illinois State team--ranked 51st in KenPom and a team that narrowly missed out on the tournament—by twenty points in the conference title game. This means it will be important for Kentucky to be well-rested for a tough game against a deep team.

There are multiple reasons for Kentucky to be scared of the Wichita State match-up. However, Wichita State has only played four teams that are in the NCAA tournament, and they are 1-3 against those teams. Their lone win came against 16th seed South Dakota State, while they have losses to Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State—albeit, those losses all came before the turn of the year. However, they did trounce LSU by thirty-five points back in November, for what that’s worth.

When you look at everything, the biggest thing Kentucky must do is contain Markis McDuffie, Landry Shamet, and Connor Frankamp from the outside. At 6’8”, McDuffie shoots thirty-eight percent from long range, and he will be a tough match-up for whoever guards him. Also, his height and ability to stretch the floor means it will be difficult for Kentucky to run their four-guard lineup. Frankamp can shoot the lights out, hitting seventy long-range shots at a forty-four percent, and his backcourt mate Shamet has hit sixty-nine of them for a forty-five percent clip. Leaving any of them open is a very risky proposition for the Wildcats.

The wild card in this game might be the crowd. Kentucky and Louisville will both play in the same session in Indianapolis this Sunday, and the odd dynamic of fans rooting against their enemy will be in play. It will be interesting to see how many UofL fans get tickets compared to Kentucky fans. If red outnumbers blue, it will be a very unfriendly environment for the young Wildcats to play in.

Predicted Result: I truly cannot predict this game. The match-up and the Shockers’ style of play are very bad for this Kentucky team, but they also haven’t proven that they can beat a legit NCAA tournament team. I could see UK winning this one, and I could just as easily see them getting shot out of the building. Ask me Saturday and I might have more of an idea on how this goes, but for now, I’m copping out and saying I truly don’t know.

If Kentucky gets to the second weekend, they will likely face off against a familiar foe...

Sweet Sixteen: UCLA (29-4, 3 seed)

Yes, it is possible that we could play Cincinnati or the winner of a play-in game. However, let’s be honest—it’s going to be UCLA we would play if we make it to the second weekend.

The same UCLA team that came into Rupp Arena, fell behind early, and then beat Kentucky 97-92 back on December 3rd.

The same UCLA team that these Wildcats want a rematch with. Although, it could be argued they didn’t want it this soon.

For all the trepidation I have about the Wichita State game, I actually would be fine with a rematch against UCLA. Of the four teams seeded third in the tournament, here are their adjusted defensive rankings, according to KenPom:

14th, 22nd, 24th, 78th

If you are thinking, “one of these things is not like the other,” then you’re right. UCLA’s defense, for all that people say they have “improved” over the past month, is ranked 78th in the nation. There is no doubt that the Bruins score a lot of points, but they also give up a lot of them. With what many consider a conference that is weaker than even the SEC, you would think with all their talent that they would be winning games by a lot.

Alas, the tournament teams they have played from their conference, they have struggled to beat. They have played Arizona three times. They won by five on the road, and lost by double-digits both home and in the Pac-12 conference title game. They beat Oregon at home by only three, in a game where they had to come back from being down nineteen points. They defeated USC on Thursday by a mere two points, and lost to them on the road before beating them by thirty-two at home.

The point is, this team has flaws, just as much as they have strengths. Kentucky will have confidence if they enter this match-up, knowing they should have beaten them earlier this year, and the style of play matches what the Wildcats want to do. Add in the fact that UK has improved leaps and bounds defensively—while UCLA has not—and there is no reason to think that Kentucky cannot win this game, if it were to happen.

If Kentucky is able to navigate that minefield of games, they will likely get their rematch with UNC, who they beat thanks to Malik Monk’s superhuman performance. One could argue that UNC is the weakest of the four number-one seeds in this tournament, but the fact is that the Wildcats will feel good about their chances if they can get to that Elite Eight matchup.

It’s anybody’s guess at this point where the road will end for Kentucky. It could end with them lifting their ninth national championship, or it could just as easily end in a second consecutive defeat in the Round of 32 to a team that is under-seeded. With this team, anything is possible. One thing is for certain, though—if the Wildcats book that trip to Phoenix, they will have undoubtedly earned their place in the Final Four.