The Kentucky Wildcats have often generated considerable doubts this season about their ability to win games in different ways.
For a very long time, it seemed this team was incapable of winning a shootout. Evaluating the Cats suggested they would need to make games ugly in order to win them. Then came the late-February stretch in which Big Blue hummed with efficiency and firepower at the offensive end of the floor. Players looked more comfortable in their roles, the ball popped a lot more in half-court sets, and the Cats roared, especially in a clinical takedown of a Missouri team which normally fields a stout defense under blue-collar coach Cuonzo Martin.
The question heading into Kentucky's regular-season finale at Florida: Would the magic continue?
It didn't, and when Jarred Vanderbilt got injured heading into the SEC Tournament, Kentucky lost the player who enabled the Wildcats to win ugly, akin to the way they overpowered Louisville in the 2014 Sweet 16: by cleaning up misses with size and length on the glass.
Before the SEC Tournament began, I felt Kentucky had a good chance of making the final because Missouri was still integrating Michael Porter Jr. into the lineup and was therefore likely to experience the problems the Cleveland Cavaliers have faced with their radically different lineup after the NBA Trade Deadline. I also felt that with Auburn lacking Anfernee McLemore and any real low-post presence, Kentucky would be able to play volleyball on the glass and get extra possessions it did not get in the loss to the Tigers in February.
I felt good about Kentucky's chances, yes, but that was before the Vanderbilt injury. Even with favorable matchups in the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Wildcats appeared to have little margin for error.
Then two things happened: Missouri -- playing in St. Louis before a lot of supportive fans -- lost to Georgia in the second round. One day later, Auburn lost to Alabama, enduring a nightmarish second half after a season defined by second-half dominance. Auburn surrendered 28 of the first 31 points of the second half. That 28-3 run could have been answered by Tom Brady, but he doesn't play basketball, and he doesn't play for Auburn. Alabama, motivated by NCAA Tournament urgency, played with a level of clarity Auburn lacked, and since the Tigers didn't have the low-post presence which could enable their other players to play more natural positions, Alabama caught the Tigers off balance and out of place throughout the second half.
A good bracket became a great bracket for Kentucky. The Cats played two consecutive games against teams which were playing their third game in three days. Kentucky looked far fresher than both Georgia and Bama, and in the semifinal against the Crimson Tide, Wenyen Gabriel went unconscious from three-point range, hitting all SEVEN of his triples to lead a Big Blue blowout of Collin Sexton's crew. The next day, Tennessee's rugged defense was no match for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's shooting. SGA poured in 29 points on a 10-of-16 shooting line and a perfect 7-of-7 mark at the foul line. This once-scuffling Kentucky offense produced a tidal wave of baskets against Bama and key scores from multiple players who volunteered to carry the load against Tennessee. Kentucky gained needed advantages in St. Louis with Missouri and Auburn crashing out, but its offense has reignited (by making less clear) the debate over whether this team can score efficiently in the NCAA Tournament.
Now that the Big Dance is here and the brackets have been revealed, this much can be said: If Kentucky is to make the Sweet 16 -- let alone the Final Four -- everything about this team, especially its offensive capabilities, will be tested.
A brief word on the South Region bracket: If Kentucky escapes the first weekend in Boise, Virginia looms in the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers' attention to detail on defense, and their ability to set loads of screens on offense to free up shooters, will demand persistence, vigilance and discipline from every Kentucky player. Cincinnati and Tennessee are poor man's versions of Virginia -- each of the three top seeds in the South hang their hats on defense and are very comfortable engaging in rock fights if they have to. Those games demand total commitment and engagement at both ends, recalling the Kentucky-Wichita State second-round game last year in Indianapolis. Kentucky will need everything it can call upon in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8.
In order to even get to Atlanta for the regionals, however, Kentucky will have to be remarkably resourceful.
The Cats, in order to crack the Sweet 16 in a season when that goal often seemed unattainable, will have to do two things in Boise:
1) Play two very different kinds of teams, assuming Arizona gets past Buffalo in round one.
2) Beat one of the sport's most underappreciated coaches and then the sport's best player.
Let's tackle point No. 1 first. Davidson, in the Round of 64, runs patient and intricate half-court sets which will force Kentucky to defend for all 30 seconds on the shot clock. Davidson is not a physically imposing team, but it wins with its structure and play design, frustrating opponents if they are unwilling to persistently chase shooters around screens and communicate on defense. Peyton Aldridge is the leading performer for the Davidson Wildcats, but those Cats from the state of North Carolina are where they are most centrally because of their coach.
Bob McKillop molded Steph Curry into a player who had the tools to become the superstar he is. McKillop has been coaching at Davidson for almost 30 years, since 1989. He will be coaching in his ninth NCAA Tournament, an average of nearly one NCAA berth every three seasons at the small, out-of-the-way school. That is remarkable. What is also remarkable -- beyond leading the school (powered by Curry) to the Elite 8 in 2008 -- is that after Davidson moved from the Southern Conference to the Atlantic 10 in 2014, the pronounced jump in competition has not slowed down these Wildcats. Davidson has now made the NCAAs twice in four seasons as a member of the A-10. McKillop is coaching as well as he ever has, content to stay at Davidson instead of seeking the high-end Power 5 job he could have in a heartbeat if he was interested.
John Calipari's credentials and acumen need no explanation or defense. Let's merely acknowledge that he will go up against a highly formidable counterpart on the other bench in Boise. Kentucky's young pups will need all the composure they have against the intricate offensive actions Davidson and McKillop run so well.
If Kentucky gets past that hurdle, and if Arizona avoids an upset against Buffalo, the transition from Davidson to yet another set of Wildcats from Tucson could not be more profound.
The Arizona Wildcats are very different from the Davidson Wildcats. They aren't disciplined -- head coach Sean Miller spent a lot of the autumn and portions of the winter lamenting how hard it has been for him to "reach" his team, getting through to players in terms of communicating needs and concepts. Miller wants Arizona to be a lockdown defensive team, but for much of the season, within and beyond the Pac-12, that hasn't happened. Arizona has been on defense what Kentucky has been on offense: mostly a disappointment, but able to show flashes of quality later in the season, to the point that a March surge -- while not likely -- at least seems possible.
Much as Kentucky flourished on offense in the SEC semifinals, Arizona took a step forward on defense by SHUTTING OUT UCLA in overtime of the Pac-12 semifinals. It is possible that Zona will be "zoned in," but it is not easy to trust this team. The U of A and UK are, in that sense, very similar.
More on the Arizona-Davidson contrast: Though Arizona is undisciplined, the Pac-12 champions are physically imposing in ways Davidson isn't and never could be. Allonzo Trier has an NBA body with the combination of length and speed needed to guard multiple positions and shoot over the top of smaller defenders. Rawle Alkins is a compact, chiseled attack dog who goes to the tin and gives Arizona tremendous energy. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a speedy point guard who lends cohesion to the Arizona offense. Dusan Ristic is a muscular big man with a solid mid-range jump shot...
... and they all pale in comparison to Deandre Ayton.
The Arizona freshman will almost certainly be the No. 1 pick in the coming NBA Draft. He has the blue-collar qualities of Ristic plus the high-end leaping and shot-blocking ability which enable him to cover ground (horizontal coverage) and space (vertical coverage). Speed, power, length, size, versatility, two-way proficiency, offensive diversity -- Ayton offers an expansive collection of skills worthy of a top draft pick. This is the low-post hammer Kentucky has not easily handled during the season... only with more skill and quickness. Ayton will be a headache for Kentucky, requiring Nick Richard and P.J. Washington to accept the reality that they aren't going to win battles so much as engage in effective containment. Going up against an elite player means that an athlete will lose his share of battles. Richards and Washington -- and if healthy enough, Vanderbilt -- need to be mentally prepared to confront that possibility and not lose faith midway through the game.
That will be one challenge for Kentucky against Arizona. The other one will be to exploit the Pac-12 champs' lack of defensive discipline and win a game played in the 70s if not the low 80s. Ayton is likely to stuff the stat sheet, and Arizona has a level of offensive skill UK didn't normally see in the SEC. (The defenses, however, were much better in the SEC than what Arizona has brought to the table this season.)
In these weekly columns over the course of the season, I have talked often about Kentucky being unlikely to score consistently in the NCAA Tournament in terms of a four-game run to the Final Four. I noted that Kentucky will need "that one game" in which the pieces all come together on offense.
Kentucky can win grinders against Davidson, Virginia, and either Tennessee or Cincinnati.
The Arizona game is the game in which the UK offense has to let loose.
Patient defense against Davidson's crisp halfcourt sets and actions. Explosive offense against an Arizona team which hasn't always committed itself at the defensive end this season.
Kentucky will need to beat two very different teams, a great coach (McKillop), and a great player (Ayton)... and that's just to get to the Sweet 16.
Being a complete team has eluded Kentucky for most of the year, but that lofty ideal became a reality at the SEC Tournament. Is Kentucky ready to show -- now that the stakes are supremely high and the margin for error is gone -- that it can remain the team it became in St. Louis, once and for all?
The difficulty of this NCAA Tournament field will make sure that if Kentucky makes the Final Four, it will have demonstrated the full scope of its quality to get there. If Kentucky really is a complete team, it will arrive in San Antonio just before Easter.
That would be quite the resurrection for a team which seeks a final and ultimate revival at the end of a 2018 SEC roller-coaster ride.