Most of the coverage surrounding the Final Four in New Orleans this week has revolved around why John Calipari doesn’t like Rick Pitino, why Pitino doesn’t like Calipari, why Kentucky fans dislike Louisville fans and why Louisville fans dislike Kentucky fans. It’s all fairly entertaining stuff, but we shouldn’t let the narratives blind us from the games themselves.
These teams have been drilled constantly for nine months and these players have been playing basketball in national competitions since they were 12-years-old. For most of them, it’s the biggest game they will ever be a part of; for the rest, a strong performance could make them millions of dollars while a weak one could be the difference between a career in the NBA or in Europe.
The coaches who didn’t know what they were doing, even if they had more talent, were ruthlessly eliminated over the last two weeks. The teams that are left can run offensive and defensive sets correctly and their coaches know exactly the right buttons to push. What it’s going to come down to is who has the best buttons.
Basketball is live action chess. The five offensive players move in unison in order to create an open shot at the basket, while the five defensive players try to prevent one. Teams run sets to create individual matchups they can exploit, forcing defenses to commit two players to stop one, which in turn creates an open shot for an offensive player.
The problem for the other three teams in the Final Four is they don’t have any individual matchups they can exploit against Kentucky. Very, very few teams in college basketball do, which is why the Wildcats went 36-2 in this season. Of their wins, only three (vs. UNC, at Tennessee, at Florida) were by fewer than five points.
Kentucky has almost no defensive holes, and there’s no combination of players Louisville, Ohio State or Kansas can put on the floor that would give the Wildcats any matchup problems.
They have a 6’9, 245 power forward (Terrence Jones) who can defend any forward in the country and a 6’7 230 swingman (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) who can defend any perimeter player. They can stick a 6’8, 235 combo forward (Darius Miller) or a 6’4, 210 combo guard (Doron Lamb) on the other team’s third, fourth or fifth option. Their worst athlete is their 6’2, 190 McDonald’s All-American PG (Marquis Teague).
Looming behind some combination of those five future NBA players is one of the most formidable shot-blockers in recent memory, an impossibly long 6’10, 220 forward who has the wingspan of Yao Ming and the foot-speed of a guard. Anthony Davis plays on an entirely different plane than nearly anyone else in the country. He’s the ultimate safety net, literally towering over the court.
On the off chance a college guard can beat the first Kentucky defender off the dribble, they end up in a vast forest of impenetrable limbs moving at impossibly fast speeds. In their Elite Eight victory over Baylor, the only way “the point guard” duo of Pierre Jackson and AJ Walton, who combined for five turnovers and eight personal fouls, were scoring in the half-court was through wildly hosting up pull-up 3-pointers. The two combined to shoot 9-23 from the field and 1-8 from deep.
However, poetically enough, Kentucky’s greatest strength is also their Achilles heel. While Davis’ historically unique combination of length and foot-speed makes him a devastating perimeter defender, that same lack of bulk leaves him vulnerable at the point of attack.
The common theme in their tough games was a 6’10+ center too big for Jones and too strong for Davis. Indiana’s Cody Zeller (6’11 230) was able to get Davis into foul trouble in both their match-ups while UNC had his brother Tyler (7’0 250). Tennessee had Jarnell Stokes, an athletic and fundamentally sound big man (6’9 260) who will end up being a better pro than either Thomas Robinson or Jared Sullinger, and Vanderbilt had Festus Ezeli (6’11 255).
Of course, there aren’t many players with that size in the world, much less in college basketball. When Kendall Marshall went down in the second round, effectively eliminating UNC, the only team in the field of 68 who can match up with Kentucky at every position, it removed the Wildcats’ biggest roadblock on their path to a national championship.
Even the most formidable offensive team will have nights where their jumper isn’t falling, while a zone team is always vulnerable to a hot-shooting opponent. A team stocked with NBA athletes at every position who play aggressive man-to-man defense isn’t going to have an off night.
Kentucky has multiple defensive answers for the top players on Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas. On the other end of the floor, none of those teams have defensive answers for all of Kentucky’s weapons. When the ball is tipped on Saturday night, that’s what is ultimately going to matter, not any type of beef between the coaching staffs or the fan bases.
Basketball isn’t all that complicated a sport, and when you look at the matchups and ignore the storylines, it’s pretty clear which team is going to cut down the nets in New Orleans on Monday night.