Roles were reversed on Thursday in Boise. Many analysts had Kentucky on the losing side of the traditionally strong 5/12 upset event, going down to the Wildcats of Davidson. Almost no one had the upset occurring in the other game of the pod, where another set of Wildcats (Arizona) took on a feisty Buffalo side in a 4/13 matchup. Yet, when all was said and done, Kentucky is the only set of Wildcats (in this region) left standing and they now face the Bulls.
Here are the three keys to this one:
Hit a three-pointer or two
In a note that we will get too more in a moment, Buffalo is white hot. In order to keep up with the Bulls on the scoreboard, Kentucky will probably have to hit more three-pointers than it did against Davidson. Given that the blue Wildcats hit exactly ZERO threes against the red Wildcats, that doesn’t seem like it should be too big of an ask.
The win on Thursday marked the first time in almost 30 years that Kentucky had failed to hit a three, snapping a streak – the best in the nation – that had begun in 1988. Kentucky didn’t even look like it wanted to take three-point shots in the Round of 64 clash, shooting just six times from behind the arc, all of them misses.
On the other hand, Buffalo just forced Arizona into a 2-of-18 effort from three-point range, showing that their perimeter defense is better than most expected entering the tournament.
Again, Kentucky has proven it can score 78 points without hitting a three, now it is time to see what they can do when those shots are falling.
Stop the three-point shot
When a No. 13 seed beats a No. 4 seed you would expect the score to be close. Maybe the underdog hits a late three to steal it. Maybe they have a late run and win by a couple of baskets. Buffalo just set the high watermark for seeds on this line as they absolutely obliterated Arizona, beating the Wildcats by 21 points.
It isn’t even like the 89-68 win flattered the Bulls. Knowing that they had a huge size disadvantage inside, Buffalo rained threes like there was no tomorrow and – as is needed for any upset – they were hitting their mark with those shots. The Bulls finished the day 15-of-30 from downtown, just killing Arizona with dagger threes on the few occasions the Wildcats looked like making a run.
Kentucky has to have better perimeter defense than Arizona did. The Wildcats also have to do a better job of stopping the drive into the lane that sees the ball kicked out to an open man. Kentucky is a quicker – and longer – team than Arizona, those traits have to be used to stop Buffalo from getting off good shots.
Don’t get complacent
The Davidson game should act as a warning of sorts to Kentucky. While the SEC Tournament was a tough grind, the teams the Wildcats faced knew that their season would continue with a loss. In the NCAA Tournament, teams know that a loss means no more basketball for six months, so everyone plays hard.
These are all battle-tested teams that have had to work hard to even be in this position. That is why Kentucky shouldn’t have been surprised when Davidson kept roaring back after the ‘Cats had built a comfortable 10-point lead at halftime.
These games are where the youth of this John Calipari team shows. A more veteran set of players would have turned it on coming out of the locker room, looking for a couple of big early scores to push the lead out to 15 points and then on from there. Instead, UK came out complacent and let Davidson back into the contest.
Against Buffalo, Kentucky needs to manage the lead better if the ‘Cats can get out in front.