By David Heim
In a shocking turn of events Sunday evening, the Kentucky Wildcats (34-0) were awarded the top overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
It’s officially the heat of March, and anything can happen on the NCAA’s biggest stage. Kentucky enters the tournament looking to become the first undefeated team since 1976.
“Everyone is 0-0 right now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said in an appearance on ESPN last week. “This is a one-game shot.”
While this is true in theory, Calipari’s group is still 34-0, and you can bet while teams are crossing their fingers to avoid the Wildcats in this year’s tournament, at the same time, they will be gunning to take down the nation’s best team.
Calipari later added in the interview, “All I want for my team right now is individually to be the best version of yourself.”
Even when the team has been at their worst, they’ve still been better than their opponents. But like we have seen many times before, the NCAA Tournament thrives on upsets. Every year a top seed gets taken out sometime before everyone expected; and we rarely see all four top seeds reach the Final Four. I’m not saying Kentucky will be this year’s upset, but here are five teams that could potentially take down the ‘Cats in the next couple of weeks.
Arizona is a team that pops off the page when it comes to talent. The (other) Wildcats garner a pretty impressive freshman—Stanley Johnson. The 6’8” guard/forward has averaged 14.1 points per game this season, something that could give teams in the tournament fits.
One thing the Wildcats possess that could be more dangerous than Johnson is the fact that they are led by senior point guard T.J. McConnell. McConnell, who was in the running for the Pac-12 Player of the Year, should be able to handle the defensive looks Kentucky throws at him, being a four-year player.
Including McConnell, the team has 10 total seniors and juniors, which spells experience. How many times have we seen teams go deep in tournaments while being led by capable upperclassmen?
How they could meet
Arizona and Kentucky could face off in the Final Four.
University of Northern Iowa has been this year’s surprise story. At 30-3, the five-seeded Panthers sport the fourth-best defense in the nation in terms of points per game allowed, with 54.3. That alone gives the Panthers a fighting chance to slow down Calipari’s high-powered offense.
Another thing UNI has going for them—sharp-shooting from beyond the arc. The Panthers are sixth in the country this season in three-point shooting at 39.8 percent per game.
We’ve seen many times teams get hot in the tournament by hot shooting from downtown.
Davidson’s Steph Curry in 2008 and BYU’s Jimmer Fredette in 2011 are two of recent memory that carried their respective teams through the tournament as a result of their three-point shooting.
The thing with this year’s Panthers is they collectively shoot the ball well from beyond the arc, which could be suffocating if those shots fall.
How they could meet
UNI and Kentucky could face off in the National Championship game.
Bo Ryan’s Badgers are coming into this tournament as a one-seed.
Why are they a candidate to dethrone Kentucky? One word: depth.
Wisconsin is unarguably led by its senior John Wooden Award candidate Frank Kaminsky, who has taken over games this season, averaging 18.2 points per contest.
Teams with one star normally do not have enough firepower to win out in the tournament. Wisconsin, while it is clear who their best player is, has more than just Kaminsky. Junior Sam Dekker and sophomore Nigel Hayes are averaging 13.0 and 12.4 points per game respectively.
As a team, Wisconsin ranks first in the country with about seven turnovers a game. Any team that wants to beat Kentucky has to play clean basketball—and Wisconsin plays the cleanest. The Badgers are also fourth in the country in free throw percentage at 76.3 percent. They will have success in close games that come down to free throw shooting. Overall, they match up pretty well with Kentucky.
How they could meet
Wisconsin and Kentucky could face off in the Final Four.
Mike Krzyzewski’s teams always seem to be in the thick of things, making the NCAA Tournament in 20 consecutive seasons. The NCAA selection committee surprised a lot of people when they awarded the Blue Devils a one-seed over fellow ACC team and regular season champion Virginia.
But Duke is deserving nonetheless, finishing the season 29-4. The Blue Devils come in to the tournament third in the country in field goal percentage at 50.2 percent. You’re obviously going to need to score a lot of points to beat Kentucky, and Duke does that better than just about everybody in the country at around 80 points a game.
Duke’s potential downfall, contrary to Wisconsin, is its free throw shooting. Coach K has been pulling his hair all season at his team’s mediocre shooting from the charity stripe, which sits at 69.1 percent collectively.
There is reason to doubt Duke, mainly because they are led by two freshmen—Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. It is hard to put much stock in a team led by inexperienced players, but Coach K’s teams have always been disciplined, and their schedule (and wins) against top teams like Wisconsin, Virginia, Notre Dame and North Carolina in conference play have certainly done just that.
How they could meet
Duke and Kentucky could square off in the National Championship game.
Kentucky can beat themselves in a number of ways. First off, the team has shown throughout some games this season the ability to take some plays off on defense. Maybe they all just realized how much better they were than their opponents and it didn’t matter. But in a tournament where every play counts, you can bet Coach Calipari has stressed the importance of consistency. I could just be nit-picking here. This team isn’t perfect, but they are pretty close.
The Wildcats have a plethora of scoring options, including sophomore Aaron Harrison, who averages 11.3 points per game, freshman Devin Booker with 10.5 points per game and junior Willie Cauley-Stein at 9.3 points per game. Also, don’t forget freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, who is arguably the team’s most complete player, averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
This team is loaded with talent and is very well coached. That formula normally wins in March. But one thing looming over every single member of the Kentucky basketball program for the next couple of weeks is the number zero—for the amount of times the Wildcats have slipped up this season. Now is definitely not the time to slip up. The Wildcats are six wins from immortality, but also have a handful of competitors that could potential prevent them from finishing perfect, including themselves, who could let the pressure of perfection get in the way of finishing the job.
David Heim is a contributing intern at CBS Local Sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @davidheim12.