Written by: Curt Ashcraft (@cashcraft740)
Edited by: Matt Shock (@shockwave_music)
Follow us on Twitter! @OS_Report
Well ladies and gentlemen, the time has finally come. The “First Four” kicked off Tuesday night and March Madness is finally here! While there are many teams like Duke, Arizona, Wisconsin and Virginia that are coming into the Big Dance with high expectations, none even come close to the standard of perfection that the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats have set this season.
After leading his Wildcats to a record of 34-0 and a SEC Tournament Championship title, it seems as if head coach John Calipari is already destined for his second national title and the first undefeated season in Division I college basketball since 1976. There is no doubt that the odds are definitely in UK’s favor with their rare combination of size, strength, perimeter game, experience and raw talent. But, as we have seen many times before, it is extremely hard to go undefeated and anything can happen on any given night.
Since most of the media has already crowned Kentucky this year’s champion, I figured it would be worth our while to take a look at the teams that could give the Wildcats a run for their money. This doesn’t mean that I think any of these teams will get a chance to square off with Kentucky, but if they do, I like their chances.
As a fellow #1 seed, the Big Ten Tournament Champions are coming into the tournament with a full head of steam. Since losing at Maryland back in February, the Badgers have rolled off six straight wins, including a 24-point slaughter of the Buckeyes on Ohio State’s Senior Day. With an overall record of 31-3, the Badgers are currently led by junior Sam Dekker (13.0 PPG), and possibly the best player in college basketball, senior Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky (18.2 PPG & 8.0 RPG).
At seven-feet tall, Kaminsky can own it down low or stretch it out on the perimeter to find sharpshooters in Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig. Sophomore Nigel Hayes brings toughness to the court that will match-up nicely with Kaminsky to defend Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson. He won’t be the same, but if the senior leadership of Traevon Jackson can return from injury and get the best out of his Badgers, then this possible Final Four match-up could go to the cheese heads.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Besides Kentucky, North Carolina is arguably the hottest team coming into the tournament. After losing to Duke, 84-77, to end the regular season, many had given up on the Tar Heels, but three straight victories in the ACC Tournament and a close title loss to Notre Dame has many people changing their tune.
Being ranked second in the nation in both rebounds and assists per game, it's the fundamentals that make North Carolina so deadly. Starting at the top with the all-everything guard in Marcus Paige, who not only leads the team in scoring (13.9 PPG), but in dishing the ball as well (4.6 APG). As talented as Paige is, it's the bruisers down low in Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks who give UNC their best shot of upsetting the Wildcats. This Tar Heel tandem has combined for almost 25 points and over 15 rebounds per game this season, so if anybody can wear down Cauley-Stein and Towns, it's these two.
Kentucky is obviously strong in many areas, but like many teams these days, a lot of their momentum starts with the three-ball. They move the ball extremely well on the perimeter with the Harrison twins, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, but with UNC's impressive ability to defend the three (29.8% allowed from the opposition) and scoring almost 78 points per game on the other end, the Tar Heels could cause Big Blue Nation some fits in this possible Final Four meeting.
Duke Blue Devils
If there is any coach that can ruin Calipari’s bid at an undefeated season, it’s Coach K. After earning his 1,000th career win this season, it seems as if Duke is already destined for another incredible tournament run. Coming out of arguably the best conference in college basketball, the Blue Devils are led by senior leader Quinn Cook (15.7 PPG) and three super-talented freshmen in Jahlil Okafor (17.7 PPG), Tyus Jones (11.6 PPG) and Justise Winslow (12.3 PPG).
Besides Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s ability to outcoach almost anyone in the college game, Duke matches up extremely well with the Wildcats. Okafor will give Kentucky’s posts a problem if he can stay on the floor and between Cook, Jones and Winslow, they can defend and score from anywhere on the court. If anybody can take down Big Blue Nation, it’s Coach K and the Blue Devils.
The Bulldogs always seem to be really good, but never great. This season has been a different story for Mark Few and Gonzaga. Few and his crew are currently 32-2 with a WCC Conference Championship under their belt. To beat Kentucky, you need size, scoring and solid defending. All are things that Gonzaga does very well.
Leading the nation in field goal percentage at 52.4 percent per game, the Bulldogs excel down low with juniors Kyle Wiltjer (16.7 PPG & 6.0 RPG), Przemek Karnowski (11.0 PPG & 5.8 RPG), and freshman Domantas Sabonis (9.5 PPG & 6.9 RPG). The Bulldogs can even cause the opposition problems with excellent scoring from senior Kevin Pangos (11.5 PPG) and lockdown defense from fellow senior Gary Bell Jr. With the match-up problems that the Zags pose in a potential national title game, this may be too much for the Wildcats to handle.
Sleeper Pick: UC Irvine Anteaters
Go ahead and call me crazy, but don’t look past the Anteaters in ANY game during the Big Dance. It would take a magical & improbable run to the national title game, but Coach Russell Turner has his team playing their best ball of the season at the right time.
The combination of senior Will Davis II (12.9 PPG & 7.0 RPG) and now healthy 7’6” sophomore Mamadou Ndiaye (10.4 PPG & 5.1 RPG) will give Kentucky’s Cauley-Stein, Johnson and Towns all that they can handle in the paint. We have also seen many teams have success in the tournament from downtown, and if the hot-shooting trio of UC Irvine’s Alex Young, Travis Souza and Jaron Martin can keep producing from the perimeter, don’t be surprised if this potential Cinderella story ruins the Wildcats hopes for perfection.
Well ladies and gentlemen, there you have it! In my opinion, these five teams have the best chance to take down the Kentucky giant, but did I miss anyone? Is there a team that you think stands a chance of taking down the Wildcats? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!