Final Four Storylines: Kentucky Edition

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 31st, 2015


The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. Today: Kentucky.

Two to Go. (USA Today Images)

Two to Go. (USA Today Images)

Pursuit of Perfection. Where else to start but with those three inescapable words. The Wildcats are two wins away from becoming the first team since 1976 Indiana to get through an entire Division I men’s basketball season undefeated. And if they get those two wins in Indianapolis — especially if they do so convincingly — it would be awfully tough to refute Kentucky’s case as one of the greatest college basketball teams of all-time. It’s difficult to compare teams across eras and there’s a tendency to describe current teams in great hyperbole without a sense of historical context. But should John Calipari’s crew finish the job, it would be really tough to find any faults with what Kentucky has done. The record of 40-0 alone would be unmatched historically.

It’s better that Kentucky is here. It would have been a truly amazing story if Notre Dame had slain the giant last Saturday night. It would’ve been even more incredible if the Irish had done so via Jerian Grant’s corner shot at the buzzer. Many fans may still be agonizing over that final minute and still wondering what could have been had a bounce or two gone the other way. But whether you were rooting for Kentucky or not — and the overwhelming majority of fans nationally were not — having the Wildcats in Indy this weekend is for the best. Sure, people hate the Kentucky aura; they hate the fans’ sense of entitlement; they hate that Kentucky is so darn good. But that’s exactly why the Final Four will be so much more gripping with Kentucky participating. The Wildcats are polarizing. They’re also historic. The combination of the two will keep everybody engrossed for as long as the Wildcats are still standing. Every great story needs a villain — and Kentucky is the baddest on the block.

Kentucky’s defense vs. two great offenses. Following its Sweet Sixteen trouncing of West Virginia last Thursday, the Wildcats’ defense appeared well on its way to being the best of the KenPom era. But after giving up 66 points on 57 possessions to Notre Dame —Kentucky’s worst per-possession defensive performance of the season — the Wildcats actually fell behind Calipari’s 2009 Memphis squad on that metric. The Fighting Irish spread Kentucky out and created enough space to shoot 52.4 percent from inside the arc, roughly 14 points higher than Kentucky’s season average. But did the Irish discover a vulnerability? Probably not. The more likely answer is that they’re just a really prolific offensive team — the second most efficient in the country — and presented the Wildcats with problems that few other teams can present. However, it won’t get any easier for Calipari’s team. This Wisconsin team has the most efficient offense of the KenPom era by a relatively large margin, and is coming off one of the best offensive halves of basketball in NCAA Tournament history. Bo Ryan’s offense is different from Mike Brey’s and therefore it will have its own unique way of attacking Kentucky. But it too is almost incomprehensibly good.

Where will Kentucky turn for offense? Karl-Anthony Towns carried the Wildcats against the smaller Notre Dame front line on Saturday. But against a significantly bigger group of Badgers, whether he will be such a consistently reliable source of offense is an open question. Towns has had an outstanding season, but excluding Kentucky’s first NCAA Tournament game against #16 seed Hampton, he had never scored more than 20 points in a single game and hadn’t scored in double figures since the SEC quarterfinal win over Florida. So in a game where half-court offensive execution will be paramount, Kentucky might need the Harrison twins to contribute more from the outside than they did against Notre Dame. The Wildcats’ size advantage inside just won’t be as profound.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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