NCAA Tournament Preview: The Quest To Dethrone Kentucky
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
The Wildcats are 34-0 thus far after defeating Arkansas in the SEC title game and despite getting tested on multiple occasions, they as the number-one overall seed have a tremendous shot at the perfect season. Beyond Kentucky, it might very well be a free-for-all, with no clear-cut second or third best, but many teams plan on standing in their way, greatly desiring to become more than just a tough test.
Just as is the case every year when March rears its head, there will surely be upsets aplenty, with wild finishes and unsung heroes. There will also be expected blowouts, mismatches on paper that play out on the court. Just how might 2015's edition of the madness play out?
Let's begin with the region Kentucky occupies. The Wildcats have already become the first major conference team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, but while first and second round matchups don't pose a major threat, the presence of Kansas, Maryland and Notre Dame could give them a run for their money.
Before the potential threats are analyzed, it's important to document what makes Kentucky so good. While many top teams have a premier scorer, the Wildcats rely on a wealth of talented contributors, emphasizing unselfishness and versatility both on offense and defense. They have length in Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, and both score, rebound and block shots. And the shots they don't swat they more often than not still manage to affect, with their presence inside. And they have plenty of teammates who can turn that defense into points. Including Cauley-Stein and Towns, nine players on their team average five points or more per game--all possessing the ability to score, pass and defend. Coach John Calipari has fielded many incredibly talented teams, but this one might take the cake.
Whether they get to blow out the cake's candles in the end will depend on the how other upper-echelon teams fair. Maryland is built around the guard-play of freshman Melo Trimble and senior Dez Wells, but the team lacks size, which could very well lead to a lopsided affair if the two teams were to meet. Notre Dame doesn't have the best tournament history, they this year they are perhaps the most likely team in the region to put up a significant fight, but in order to contend they would need to keep big man Zach Auguste out of foul trouble. If that was accomplished, the guard trio of Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and Jerian Grant could very well put enough points on the board to strike fear into the Wildcats.
The Region's Sleeper: A long-shot to beat Kentucky is Wichita State, but look for the Shockers to give Kansas a run in the second round and make the Sweet 16. If Wichita State, a team that returns most of last year's number-one seeded team -- including perhaps the best guard trio in the country in Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet -- does in fact go on to meet Kentucky in the Elite Eight, they will be hungry and out for redemption, as the Wildcats knocked them off in last year's tourney.
Midwest Region Predictions
Sweet 16: Kentucky over Maryland. Notre Dame over Wichita State.
Elite Eight: Kentucky over Notre Dame.
The West Region is far more balanced than the Midwest. Anything can happen here, but Wisconsin is its number one seed and for good reason. The Buckeyes are headlined by senior forward Frank Kaminsky, who is averaging 18 points on 55 percent shooting, in addition to eight rebounds, two assists and a block per game. Their road to the Elite Eight isn't altogether difficult. Potential second round opponent Oregon would need an otherworldly performance by guard and Pac-12 Player of the Year Joseph Young to make a run, and North Carolina, whom they could face in the Sweet 16, would also have to overachieve.
The Badgers real test comes in the form of Arizona, which had a significant case to take Wisconsin's top spot in the region. The Wildcats have a pass-first point guard in TJ McConnell, and four very talented forwards he can choose from: Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczeski and do-it-all freshman Stanley Johnson. That depth could give Wisconsin fits offensively, and on the other end as well if they manage to alternate on Kaminsky to give him different looks.
Wisconsin has played incredible basketball after losing starting point guard Traevon Jackson in mid-January, and that's a credit to the system head coach Bo Ryan has implemented and how impressive depth is. Ryan always fields formidable teams. Arizona is deep. If they meet, that game would undoubtedly be a doozy.
The Region's Sleeper: 12-seed Wofford is a team that has the makeup that always seems to do well come tournament time. They don't jump out statistically, and they just narrowly beat 11-win Furham in the Southern Conference Championship, but they have a gunslinger in Karl Cochran, who hoisted the 12th most three-pointers in the nation and made 37 percent of them this season, and an efficient, consistent supporting cast. Underdogs who succeed in the tournament often do so with someone who catches fire. And Cochran certainly can heat up and make whatever advantage the opposition has irrelevant.
West Region Predictions
Sweet 16: Wisconsin over UNC. Arizona over Baylor.
Elite Eight: Wisconsin over Arizona in a close battle.
The unexpected should be expected come tournament time. It's what annually makes March Madness aptly named. The East Region could very well be where March gets crazy. Four teams could be the East Region's representative in the Final Four: Villanova, Virginia, Louisville and Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa? Yes.
The Panthers were chopped liver for Wichita State during the 2013-2014 season, but head coach Ben Jacobsen now puts one of the nation's most stifling defensive teams on the floor. On top of the suffocating defense they have Seth Tuttle, a center who doesn't play like it. He can score on the inside, from mid-range, and from deep, and also is a more than capable passer and a vacuum on the boards. Around him are an array of three-point shooters, which makes for a deadly team that can take down first-round opponent Wyoming, potential second-round foe Louisville and top-seed Villanova. They're that dangerous.
What about the rest of the region? Louisville could stop Northern Iowa in its tracks if forward Montrezl Harrell continues to play out of his mind. Virginia has the talent to beat everyone in the region, but how they fair depends on the health of guard Justin Anderson. If he isn't healthy, the deep run that is expected could turn into an early exit.
Villanova is the number-one seed for a reason, but that doesn't mean they can't fall flat. They live and die by the three-pointer, as 43 percent of their attempts come from deep. Draining a lot of them is how they made the Big East, a very competitive conference, look like chopped liver, but just as they can get hot they can go cold. That said, they haven't lost since January 18th and show no signs of slowing down.
The Region's Sleeper: Oklahoma. Now, how is a three-seed considered a sleeper? They are flying under the radar with the noise Villanova, Virginia and Northern Iowa are making. The Sooners have a defense that is ranked in the top-five nationally and they take advantage of the havoc they wreck with a fast-paced attack. That combination could equate to a deep run, but if their up-tempo style doesn't lead to points, they may have difficulty scoring. This is because they have trouble creating contact and getting to the free-throw line when times get tough. Down the stretch in tight games, sometimes whether wins and losses are decided at that stress-inducing line. If aren't hitting from the field but find a way to get there, look out.
East Region Predictions
Sweet 16: Northern Iowa over Villanova. Virginia over Providence.
Elite Eight: Northern Iowa over Virginia.
Much like the East, the South Region could go any number of directions. Duke is the top seed, and while the Blue Devils recent tournament history isn't the most uplifting to peruse freshman big man and Player of the Year candidate Jahlil Okafor could help Mike Krzyzewski's team get off the snide. Duke has often been upset, either in their first or second tournament game, but this year may very well tell a different story. Complimenting Okafor's double-double machine is senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones, who make up a backcourt that can scoring with anyone. Duke isn't deep, and Jones is hot and cold, but if these three play well and get the kind of contributions Justise Winslow has made lately they could leave teams in the dust.
It won't be easy. Iowa State is coming off a comeback victory over Kansas to win the Big 12 Title, and Gonzaga has been grinning in delight all year long at the play of Kentucky transfer and Portland native Kyle Wiltjer, who has turned into a dependable, efficient scorer and tenacious rebounder. Iowa State is an exciting, well-oiled machine under coach Fred Hoiberg, and SMU and Eastern Washington could make some noise, but this region is about Duke and Gonzaga.
Wiltjer isn't by his lonesome on the Bulldogs. He has a center in Przemek Karnowski, who looms over his 6'10" frame, at a gigantic 7'1, 288-pounds but passes like the guards half his size. Karnowski's name might be difficult to pronounce, but his game is smooth. He knows how to score around the basket, making 61 percent of his field goals and even more than that of late, and far from clogs the middle. Adding salt to the wound for the opposition is Domantas Sabonis, the son of former Portland Trail Blazer great Arvydas Sabonis. The younger Sabonis plays as if he's learned a thing or two from dad, giving Gonzaga terrifying depth that other teams just don't have.
Gonzaga could very well be Duke's undoing, that is if history hasn't already repeated itself for the Blue Devils. Okafor is a gifted player, but good enough to go up against this gigantic trio? That would be a tough task.
Region's Sleeper: Southern Methodist University. The Mustangs are coached by Larry Brown, 73 years young and still as sharp as a tack. This is the same Larry Brown who coached in the NBA for many years and has both an NBA and NCAA title to his name -- the only coach who can say that. Brown's Mustangs play like the Detroit Pistons team that brought him that historic title in 2004. They play like their hair is on fire, relentless on both ends, giving everything they have, which Brown demands. They should handily beat a UCLA team that has no business being in the tournament, and could very well knock off Iowa State and then at least make the Zags more than a little scared. Given how he has the Mustangs playing, I hope they do.
South Region Predictions
Sweet 16: Duke over Eastern Washington. Gonzaga over SMU.
Elite Eight: Gonzaga over Duke.
And with that, the Final Four is set: Kentucky vs Wisconsin, and Northern Iowa against Gonzaga.
Midwest vs West
Wisconsin matches up very well against Kentucky, but the Wildcats energy and athleticism could overwhelm even someone as composed as Kaminsky. In big games like this, where every possession counts, with the crowd roaring and the pressure rising, the ability or inability by the big men to stay out of foul trouble could be the decider. Since Wisconsin's experienced backcourt matches up well with Kentucky's, if the refs let Kaminsky, Cauley-Stein and Towns play, it might come down to one of two things: either Kaminsky's inside-outside game proves too much even for the length of Cauley-Stein and Towns, or their length on both ends takes Kaminsky out of his comfort zone.
Who prevails? Kentucky. Their defense has proven to time and time again be suffocating, and their athleticism on offense is relentless in taking advantage.
East vs South
Northern Iowa vs Gonzaga--where a great through the East's mighty foes comes to an end. Tuttle is superb, but he doesn't have much help on the frontline. His supporting cast may be a collection of efficient shooters, but if they miss there's only one guy who can create extra possessions, and that's him. While he averaged seven rebounds per game, only one player, Marvin Singleton averaged more than five, and that matches his average scoring output. Gonzaga has the size to make Tuttle call for help that just isn't there.
Championship Game: Kentucky vs Gonzaga
This season's team is without a doubt Mark Few's best at the helm of Gonzaga, and I think they can pull it off. Kentucky has overwhelmed with length, an exorbitant amount of athleticism, stifling defense and balanced scoring. Gonzaga has these attributes and bulk to go with their height and skillset. While I would not be surprised to see Kentucky pull off the perfect season, Gonzaga's makeup is the road block that has yet to stand in their way.