After one of the most shocking first weekends in NCAA Tournament – we are looking at you Virginia – Kentucky is in an outstanding position to make the Final Four. The Wildcats monstered Buffalo on Saturday, beating the Bulls by 20 a day after Buffalo sprung the 4 vs. 13 upset on Arizona. Kentucky is now the highest seeded team in the South Region and their next test comes in the form of No. 9 seed Kansas State.
Here are the three keys to this one:
Keep the three-point defense strong
There are many reasons why Kentucky is now looking more like the Final Four team that many predicted before the start of the season. Their shots dropping and a commitment to rebound everything – along with the improved play of a couple of stars – have been important, but nothing is driving this team like its three-point defense.
Buffalo shot 50-percent from three in the upset of Arizona, hitting 15-of-30 attempts from downtown. Against Kentucky, that same set of Buffalo shooters shot 22.6-percent from behind the arc, connecting on just 7-of-31 shots from distance. The Wildcats have the best three-point defense of any team in the field, holding teams to 29.8-percent when they shoot the three-ball. In an era where the three-point shot decides games, that is a massive advantage.
Score 70 points
This seems to be the magic number for Kentucky that dictates whether a game will be won or lost. The Wildcats are 2-8 this season when scoring less than 70 points, with both wins coming against an offensively deficient Georgia squad that fired its coach at the end of the season. If is an odd number really, because the Kentucky defense would seem to be strong enough and active enough to allow the Wildcats to win low scoring games instead of having to have the shooters firing every night.
Instead, a host of teams – including No. 1 seed Kansas and Tennessee twice – beat Kentucky by keeping the Wildcats scoring in check. Kansas State has held its first two tournament opponents to less than 60 points with Creighton (59) and UMBC (43) falling victim, to the purple ‘Cats love of slow, limited possession games. Kentucky will need to find a way to speed up Kansas State to avoid playing the type of low scoring game that has proven dangerous all season.
Kentucky has been very good at controlling the basketball during its postseason run. In the first games so far since the regular season ended, the Wildcats have averaged just 9.6 turnovers a game. When you add in the 14 assists per game that Kentucky has seen over that period, then you have a pretty clear idea of where the offensive improvement has come from compared to earlier in the year.
The problem is that Kansas State likes to make the game a mess.
Bruce Weber’s squad turns its opponents over as well as any team in the country. They rank in the top 25 nationally in that category, taking the ball away on 21.5-percent of their opponent’s possessions. They like to harass the ball handlers and they are physical all over the court, throwing hips and elbows to fight for position and disrupt the rhythm of an offense. This will be a big test of Kentucky’s ability to handle the ball and win against a team built to deny scoring opportunities in any and every way.