It’s not exactly a surprise Kentucky has made it undefeated through 34 games this season. They’re housing eight McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster and that doesn’t include first-team SEC player Willie Cauley-Stein. Kentucky’s depth is one of a kind and it shows in the fact that coach Calipari has six players scoring 8.4 or more points a game. Even guys scoring less than that, Dakari Johnson and Tyler Ulis, are capable of putting up double-digits on any night. And this doesn’t even highlight their defensive prowess due to their great height, length, and athleticism. The Wildcats are the only team in the country ranked top five in the country in offense and defense according to Kenpom.
The SEC had a down year, but Kentucky played a challenging non-conference schedule before conference play. Wins over Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Providence, and Texas speak for themselves. The only question with Kentucky is whether or not their soft schedule in recent weeks will leave them weak when they finally play good opponents. Fortunately for them they won’t face anyone that good until the Final Four. We’ll get to the rest of the region in a second, but to say the committee took it easy on Kentucky is an understatement. When Kentucky gets to the Final Four, their depth and defense will take over allowing them to finish the season undefeated and cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
Kentucky’s biggest threat in the region doesn’t come from No. 2 seed Kansas, but No. 3 seed Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s style is the complete opposite to what Kentucky offers. The Fighting Irish bomb away from deep and rely on perimeter scoring to be successful. Notre Dame flipped the script on North Carolina in the ACC Tournament final by going incredibly small once Carolina took a second half lead. The end result was Notre Dame going on an 11-0 run before UNC called a timeout and the game was never the same. Notre Dame would try the same thing against Kentucky, assuming they get the opportunity, and the dichotomy in styles would be entertaining to watch.
Kansas is as vulnerable a No. 2 seed as exists in the bracket. They’ve lost five of their last seven games and are missing elite recruit Cliff Alexander due to an NCAA investigation. More importantly, guards Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr. just don’t illicit conversation late in games. Add in Bill Self’s weak coaching ability (he’s a great recruiter, but not a good in-game coach) and Kansas is ripe for an early round upset.
No one else in the region should give Kentucky cause for concern. Wichita State might open things up on the bottom half of the region with some of the best guard play in the country, but Kentucky would run them off the court. Butler looks likely to get upset by Texas in the first game (we’ll get back to that) and Texas has plenty of talent to make a run of their own if their inept coach doesn’t get in their way. Maryland is the team the analytics people hate because they’ve won so many close games this year. That could boil down to good guard play and foul shooting, but their luck should run out very soon. Finally, West Virginia comes at you in waves, but Kentucky will chew them up inside if Maryland’s guard play doesn’t beat them first.
First round upset that will happen: Texas over Butler
As mentioned above, it’s no surprise Texas didn’t get things sorted out for most of the season. Their point guard and leader Isaiah Taylor missed a month and a half before taking a while to find his game. When he did, senior Jonathan Holmes sustained a concussion and then took a long while to return to form after coming back. Some teams are capable of overcoming these losses with coaching, but coach Rick Barnes has never been one for good Xs and Os. Fortunately there’s a chance to make amends and Butler just happens to be the buzzsaw. They must hate the fact that this was the No. 11 seed they got stuck with. Butler is reasonably small on their front line, going with a three-guard lineup and two forwards sized 6’7” and 6’9”. No team in the Big East brings the kind of size Texas does on the frontline, so Butler will be packing their bags early. And yes, it’s not a Vegas upset because Texas is favored by 1.5 points, but we’re focusing on seeds.
First round upset that won’t happen: Buffalo over West Virginia
Bobby Hurley is back in the tournament, this time as a head coach for Buffalo as opposed to a floor-slapping point guard for Duke. His Buffalo team sure isn’t a slouch ranking top 50 in the nationally in offense and offensive turnover %. The turnover % is something that comes in handy when facing the team that has the best defensive turnover % and steal percentage in the country. Unfortunately Buffalo couldn’t hang earlier this year with Kentucky or Wisconsin, losing both games by double-digits. This game may be close, but West Virginia should survive even if star player Juwan Staten doesn’t make it back in time for this game. Their depth will wear down Buffalo and eventually the Mountaineers will survive.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
Texas -1.5 over Butler – For the reasons mentioned above.
New Mexico State +11.5 over Kansas – Kansas has a history of slow starts in tournaments, so here’s another one to take advantage of.
Purdue and Cincinnati Under 119.5 – This game will not be pretty. First one to 50 wins, which means 60 isn’t happening.
Notre Dame and Northeastern Over 141 – Both these teams like to bomb away from three and neither team plays defense all that well.