On Sunday, the Kentucky Wildcats dropped the Tennessee Volunteers, 77-72, to win their fourth consecutive SEC Championship.
That night, however, the Cats received the fifth seed in the South Region of the Bracket for this year’s NCAA Tournament. With a quality upset over the Volunteers, fueled by a tournament run of routing a tournament team like Alabama, many would have thought the Wildcats would have received a better seed that didn’t bring them the toughest road they’ve likely ever seen to the Final Four.
However, in order to reach San Antonio, head coach John Calipari will likely have to string together some of the best coaching performances of his decorated career.
Davidson Wildcats (21-11)
The fifth seed Kentucky Wildcats will take on the 12th seed Davidson Wildcats Thursday night at 7:10 P.M. EDT. The game will be played in Boise, ID, a long way from Lexington. Defense will be key for Kentucky, as Davidson scores 77 points per game and shoots over 39% from behind the arc. Davidson is also stingy on defense, giving up only 67.9 points per game this season. Their offense is efficient, ranking 12th in the country with just over 17 assists per game.
The key for Kentucky will be their length in locking up Davidson’s offense.
Luckily for Kentucky, Davidson’s big weakness is on the glass. They rank 306th in rebounding at 32.8 per game. With Kentucky’s elite size inside, even if Jarred Vanderbilt doesn’t play, it should be good enough to play a major role in setting the tone early. Sophomores Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel came up huge late in Kentucky’s SEC finale with Tennessee. Calipari will likely look to both of them throughout the game with freshman Nick Richards struggling as of late.
Davidson is well-coached, has multiple upperclassmen and has a legitimate chance of pulling out a victory. With that being said, Calipari is 81-1 against teams who are not in a Power 5 conference. His one loss was in the NIT Tournament to Robert Morris. Kentucky is also hellacious on defense and is full of momentum riding into Boise.
Prediction: Kentucky 71, Davidson 58
Arizona Wildcats (27-7)
The Pac-12 champions have the best player in the country: DeAndre Ayton. Ayton is averaging over 20 points and more than 11 rebounds per contest. He’s shooting over 61% from the floor, 74% from the free throw line and 36% from three point range. Ayton is not just an offensive player. His 1.9 blocks per game far and away lead the team and it’s almost impossible to take the ball to the rim without feeling his monstrous presence. Ayton can do it all and is sure to be the first or second overall pick. Watching him in March will be fun, but could certainly doom the Kentucky Wildcats in a potential second round matchup.
Kentucky thought Nick Richards would be a shell of Ayton, but he’s yet to even show a glimpse of consistency on the court. With Vanderbilt likely sidelined, it would be up to Killeya-Jones and Gabriel to stop the driving force that is Ayton. They have a year’s worth of experience on Ayton, but the talent is unmatched.
Kentucky’s strength would be to match Ayton’s scoring punch with the tandem of Kevin Knox and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander. Getting into the paint to put Ayton in foul trouble would really build a clog in Arizona’s offense. Still, though, they’re not just a one-man show. They have multiple guards that can score, but luckily Kentucky is one of the best teams in the country at defending the perimeter.
Sean Miller has been below-average in the NCAA Tournament, while Calipari has been excellent. The coaching (on paper) isn’t near the mismatch as it really is. Slowing down Ayton would be a priority but in order to win the game, you have to score more points than the other team. Both are something Kentucky is capable of doing, but they’ll have to get past Davidson first.
Prediction: Kentucky 77, Arizona 69
Virginia Cavaliers (31-2)
The ACC champions sit atop the best conference in the country this season. The ACC had nine teams receive a bid into the NCAA Tournament and with just two losses on the season, Virginia absolutely dominated their league. Their strong suit this season is no secret, it’s their defense. They rank first overall in total defense and points allowed. However, their offense is in the back of the pack, tied for 309th in points per game and their rebounding is no better at 32.7 per game.
Say the Cats defeat Davidson and shut down Ayton long enough to come up with a win over Arizona… will they have anything left in the tank to defeat the top overall seed? It’s unlikely, but not out of the question for one of the most prolific coaches in the country. Calipari’s teams always play up to their competition and Virginia is top of the line.
Kentucky is elite on defense as well with their length and size on both the perimeter and inside the paint. Their scoring on the wing and emergence of hot shooting from Gabriel has been a nice compliment to their effort on the defensive side of the ball.
Kentucky is surely a team Virginia doesn’t want to see in a Sweet Sixteen matchup. While Virginia is clearly the better team, don’t ever count out John Calipari.
Prediction: I can’t quite predict this game, just because it could go either way. However, if I had to go with one statistic, it’s that Tony Bennett has never even made it to a Final Four while John Calipari has made it to six.
Cincinatti Bearcats (30-4)
Of course, this is going on the assumption the Bearcats avoid an upset through three games while Kentucky pulls off two. However, Cincinnati is a lot like Virginia and if Kentucky can beat the Cavaliers, they can certainly end the Bearcats’ tournament run.
The two schools are less than two hours apart and would make for a quality Elite 8 matchup.
The road to the Final Four will likely be Kentucky’s toughest in the Calipari era. Even the 2013-2014 Wildcats probably had a slightly easier road. But with college basketball being wide open this year, anything can happen in March.