For as wild as the 2014 NCAA Tournament was, with a championship game between an eight seed (Kentucky) and a seven seed (UConn), it was more the exception than the rule. Of the previous 10 NCAA champions, eight were No. 1 seeds and the other two were a No. 2 and a No. 3. There will always be elements of randomness in a single elimination tournament, but it isn’t a random number generator. The best teams advance and the worst teams go home.
What the Tourney does is expose weak spots. Games are played on neutral floors instead of friendly home venues, which means teams won’t get as many calls and won’t benefit from the innumerable number of benefits you get from playing in your home gym. A lot of first weekend games are played in front of sparse crowds in empty gyms, where nothing but the quality of each team and its coaching staff matters. That’s where you see the best teams separate themselves.
Kentucky’s most resounding wins came on neutral floors in non-conference season. Their toughest challenges all came during SEC play, where they had to travel to places like Gainesville, College Station, Baton Rouge and Athens and squeak out wins against dramatically less talented competition. They beat Kansas by 32 in Indianapolis and they beat UCLA by 39 in Chicago - they weren’t games as much as slaughters. A lot of things are going to have to go right for a team to beat Kentucky on a neutral floor.
When evaluating how well a team will do in March, the first thing you want to do is look at the composition of their roster. It all starts with defense. Do they have guards with the speed and athleticism to stay in front of their men? Do they have big men who can move their feet laterally and defend in space? Do they have enough size to prevent bigger teams from bullying them on the glass? What happens if the other team inverts their offense and posts up their guards? If you don’t have the personnel to man up, you don’t have a ton of options.
The one tried and true method of beating a bigger and faster team is zone, which is why outside shooting is so important in the NCAA Tournament. If you don’t have the 2-3 shooters who can force a defense to guard them 25+ feet from the basket, it’s going to be hard to generate much offense in the paint, especially if the refs choose to swallow their whistles and let teams play more “physical” basketball. That was the genius of what Brad Stevens did at Butler - his players mugged and hacked the other team and dared the refs to do anything about it.
Every once in a while you will see a team like VCU flip the underdog script by going with a full-court press. However, for the most part, the teams that push the ball and want to play at as fast as possible tend to look more like Louisville and UNC. Both programs have won national titles in recent years by getting the game into the 80’s and 90’s and blowing less talented teams off the floor. The key to that strategy is having big men who can run and make plays in space.
If you don’t have guys like that, your best bet to upset a higher-seeded team is to control tempo and limit the number of possessions. The ideal scenario for an underdog is to hold the ball for 30+ seconds and then shoot a 3. The more you can make the game into a coin flip of making shots 25+ feet from the rim, the better. That’s why having guards who can take care of the ball is so important in March - an underdog that doesn’t turn the ball over can stay in almost any game and anything can happen in the last few minutes.
What makes Kentucky difficult is they can thrive in any type of game because they are so great defensively. It doesn’t matter whether you want to slow the game down or force tempo - they can shut you down, clean the defensive glass and score going the other way. They have a 7’0 elite interior defender in Karl Towns and a 7’0 elite perimeter defender in Willie Cauley-Stein so there’s almost no way to score going 1-on-1. Everything you score against Kentucky is going to have to come off ball movement. It’s like playing an NBA team.
When the game is in the halfcourt, they can pound the ball inside and get easy looks at the rim or force double teams and create open shots on the perimeter. Beating Kentucky starts with having the size to match up with them in the post. The problem is that very few teams in the country have the horses to match up with a 7’0, 7’0, 6’10 frontline, much less one that brings 6’11 and 6’9 off the bench. Most try to zone them, which creates a ton of open shots on the perimeter. That’s why the Wildcats two most important players this season have been freshman guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, since they have the shooting ability to punish teams for leaving them open.
If there is a weakness for Kentucky, it’s their starting backcourt of Aaron and Andrew Harrison. While the two 6’6 twins are way more experienced than your average pair of sophomore guards, they don’t have the high-level athleticism that the rest of the roster has, which is why they are projected as late second-round picks in most mock drafts. They are streaky outside shooters and questionable decision makers who can be sped up into making poor decisions. A team that is going to beat Kentucky should have the size to guard them in the post and the perimeter speed to press up on the Harrisons and force them into making quick decisions all over the court. If you can steal the ball from their guards, you can push it back the other way and score before their big men have a chance to set up their half-court D.
When you look around the country, very few teams have all the pieces necessary to give Kentucky a game. The teams with the big men to match-up with Kentucky - Texas, Gonzaga, LSU - don’t have the guards and the teams with the guards - Virginia, Maryland, Iowa State - don’t have the big men. Duke has Jahlil Okafor, but Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones aren’t exactly known for their elite on-ball D. Wisconsin has the shooting big men to spread out the Kentucky D but they don’t have the elite perimeter scorer who can take advantage of those driving lanes. Villanova has shooting and interior size but not the overall team athleticism.
The team with the best chance is Arizona, one of the only programs in the country who can match the recruiting machine in Lexington. They have two NBA-caliber 7’0 (Kaleb Tarczewski and Dusan Ristic) at C and a 6’9 NBA-caliber PF in Brandon Ashley. They have two 6’6+ perimeter players with elite NBA athleticism in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson. They have a senior PG in TJ McConnell who will be able to control tempo and they have a ton of shooting they can bring off their bench to keep the Kentucky defenders honest.
The recruiting numbers speak for themselves. With the exception of McConnell, everyone of Arizona’s starters is a 5-star recruit and all of their bench players who get minutes are 4-stars. This is a team full of guys who have expected to go to the NBA since they were 15 and have been dominating guys with less athletic talent their entire lives. They won’t be scared of anyone and a Final Four game between Kentucky and Arizona would double as a McDonald’s All-American reunion and a preview of the first round of the NBA draft.
If you were drawing up a formula to pull off the upset, you would start with Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson dictating tempo by getting into the Kentucky guards on defense. If Arizona can turn the game into an up-and-down affair, they are one of the only teams in the country with the athleticism to run with Kentucky. On the other end of the floor, both of those guys can use ball screens from a 6’9 shooter like Ashley to get in the lane and both have the athleticism to try and finish over and through the Kentucky big men. From there, McConnell takes care of the ball, Gabe York and Byron Pitts catch fire from 3 and Tarczewski and Ristic hold their ground in the low post.
Even if all that goes right, though, Calipari has a hole card. Karl Towns is the ultimate match-up nightmare - a 7’0 with the size to play as a C but the skill-set and athleticism to play as a PF. Ashley can guard 95% of the PF’s in the college game but he has no chance against Towns. Arizona can’t go big and play both their 7’0 because they won’t have enough floor spacing on offense and they can’t go small with Johnson or RHJ at the 4 because Towns is big and strong enough to pin those guys on the back and skilled enough to score over them. If they send double teams or try to sit in a zone, Towns can pick apart a defense and find shooters on the perimeter. The only counter Sean Miller has is to try and pick up full-court and keep the ball out of Towns hands, but Cal can put enough ball-handlers on the floor to make that extremely difficult. Break the press and it’s Lob City at the rim for Towns and Cauley-Stein.
It’s no coincidence that Calipari’s national title came with a team built around a dynamic two-way 7’0 who could slide between either frontcourt position. Karl Towns is the closest thing to Anthony Davis since Anthony Davis and Kentucky has all the pieces around him necessary to win a championship. He’s the reason why Kentucky should go 40-0 and why the 2015 NCAA Tournament should be a lot more predictable than 2014.