Before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year, the major talk was Kentucky versus the field. This might seem like an insult to the other 67 teams in the field, given the upset nature of the tournament, but given their undefeated record and otherworldly talent level, the Wildcats made it a legitimate discussion.
It was a 50-50 proposition in the beginning, but as Kentucky has worked its way to this point, handling Hampton and Cincinnati in the first weekend, then hammering West Virginia in historical fashion before narrowly taking a win from the jaws of defeat against Notre Dame, the odds coming out of Vegas for the Big Blue Nation to get another title opened at 5-6 after the Elite Eight. For perspective, Duke and Wisconsin opened at 7-2, while Michigan State came in at 8-1.
So, with the odds seemingly tilted in the Wildcats favor, can anyone else in the Final Four stop the Kentucky Machine’s quest for 40 wins? My gut tells me no, and my analysis of the other three teams in the field compared to Kentucky yields the same answer.
The first obstacle in the way of the Wildcats perfection is the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers DO have the potential to beat Kentucky, but I think it would take 50+ combined points from their best players Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker and/or another shooting performance like the one they had in the against Arizona in the Elite Eight. (15-19 from the field in the second half, 12-18 from three for the game.) I don’t see that happening, as Kaminsky is a about to have his toughest day at the office this year working against that ridiculous front line from Kentucky. Willy Cauley-Stein will be the first and primary defender on Frank “the Tank,” and his exceptional combination of size and athleticism makes him the perfect “anti-Kaminsky.” And if he ever gets tired or into foul trouble, Kentucky coach John Calipari can throw the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson or Trey Lyles at Kaminsky. Dekker will likely find himself chased off the three point line and into the lane, running into those same big guys and finding he overstated athleticism comes up short against true NBA level talent in the lane.
Assuming Kentucky gets past the Badgers, and I think they will by about eight points, they will face the winner of Michigan State-Duke. And let’s get one thing out of the way, if the Spartans from MSU advance, the Wildcats will cruise to number 40. For all the glory of Head Coach Tom Izzo and his noted ability to produce results in March, the Spartan faithful would just be subject to flashbacks of 2009, when Tyler Hansborough and his North Carolina team in the championship game torched them by 17.
If Duke advances though, we’ll get the dream matchup that college basketball fans have been praying for, and the game would live up to the hype. Duke is the only team with a talent level to play with Kentucky left. Jahlil Okafor would go to battle against the Wildcat big men in an epic showdown on the block, while Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook would butt heads with the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron. The real X-factor would be Justise Winslow. Listed at just 6-foot-6, he’s been playing the “4” in Coach K’s system. The determining factor could easily wind up being, does his perimeter oriented skill set allow him create mismatches against someone like Lyles or Towns, or does his lack of size make him too much of a defensive liability and allow Kentucky to dominate in interior on the offensive end like they did in the second half against Notre Dame?
At the end of it all, I’ll take the ‘Cats by five in a championship matchup against the Blue Devils. The perfect season will be intact, Kentucky will reload with five-star talent for another title run next year and the machine that Calipari has built Big Blue Nation into will march on.