College Sports

Kentucky Wildcats the overwhelming favorites in NCAA Tournament

Willie Cauley-Stein is the headliner among a stable of Kentucky big men that helped the Wildcats go 34-0 in their pursuit of perfection.
Willie Cauley-Stein is the headliner among a stable of Kentucky big men that helped the Wildcats go 34-0 in their pursuit of perfection. Getty Images

For the first time since 1997 there won’t be a Florida Gator, Florida State Seminole or Miami Hurricane in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But that could be a good thing, considering the Kentucky Wildcats (34-0) might just annihilate everyone who gets in their way as they chase perfection.

The top-ranked and top-seeded team in the tournament and country isn’t just the favorite to win a ninth championship and become the first unbeaten team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index is giving Kentucky a 49 percent chance to win it all, and oddsmakers in Las Vegas are making big blue an even-money bet.

That makes them overwhelming favorites.

“Let me just say this: How many losses did the team that won the national title last year have?” Kentucky coach John Calipari told ESPN’s Rece Davis on Sunday night as he answered his own question by holding up nine fingers.

“So how many wins or losses we have going in doesn’t matter. Everybody is zero and zero now. The key to this — and everybody is saying Kentucky can’t lose — this is a one-game shot now. All I want my team to be, individually, is the best version of [themselves].”

The Wildcats, who lost to Connecticut in last year’s championship game, are on the top line in the Midwest bracket, which features perennial powers Kansas (26-8), ACC tournament champion Notre Dame (29-5) and Maryland (27-6) as the remaining top four seeds.

“Absolutely somebody can play them close [in that bracket],” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “But I don’t see anybody beating them.”

Said ESPN’s Dick Vitale: “There’s only one team there that I think can really possibly challenge them if they get a good start in the game and were making shots, and that’s Notre Dame.”

The rest of the 68-team field would love a shot.

Top seeds Villanova (32-2, East), Duke (29-4, South) and Wisconsin (31-3, West) all have the talent to become the fourth team to knock off an unbeaten in the tournament since those ’76 Hoosiers finished perfect.

Last season’s Kentucky team became the third. Those eighth-seeded Wildcats ended Wichita State’s season at 35-1 in the Round of 32.

The other unbeatens to go down in the tourney since ’76: Larry Bird’s 1979 Indiana State Sycamores, who lost to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State squad in the final and finished 33-1, and the 1991 Larry Johnson-led UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, who finished 34-1 after a loss to Duke in the national semis.

This season’s Kentucky team, though, appears to have the kind of scoring balance and depth no team in the tournament can match.

The Wildcats feature five players who average nine points or better and no one on the roster plays more than 25 minutes per game, which means there is plenty of freshness in the legs of 6-6 guards Aaron Harrison, Devin Booker and Andrew Harrison, and 7-foot forwards Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.

“I think I have the best team, and I have the best players,” said Calipari, who said the Wildcats didn’t cut down the nets after winning the Southeastern Conference title on Sunday because they forgot.

“Now does that mean we’ll win?” he continued. “No, it doesn’t.”

CBS’ Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis, and ESPN’s Vitale, Bilas and Seth Greenberg are all picking Kentucky to finish 40-0. ESPN’s Jay Williams and CBS’ Doug Gottlieb are picking Arizona to win the title.

None of the experts are picking Kentucky to lose before getting to Indianapolis and the Final Four.

“Arizona is the one team that can beat Kentucky because they have the size and range,” Williams said of a potential meeting in the national semifinals. “The one question will be can they score enough.”

Betting on low seeds to win the title isn’t smart.

Over the past 30 years, No.1 seeds have won 18 titles, and No.2 and No.3 seeds have won four each. The remaining four championships have gone to a four, six, seven and eight seed.

As for the bubble teams, it was a happy night for Indiana, Texas, Boise State and especially UCLA.

The Bruins, tabbed the 11th seed in the South Region, were the overwhelming head-scratcher, selection committee pick experts agreed.

“I didn’t think there was a whole lot to complain about,” Bilas said. “The ones left out — Temple and Miami — can complain about UCLA and Boise State. Outside of that, I thought the committee got everything right.”

The Hurricanes, who host North Carolina Central (25-7) on Tuesday night and are a No.2 seed in the National Invitation Tournament, can probably point to strength of schedule (along with Temple) for why they were left out of the bracket they really wanted to be in. UM’s schedule was ranked 71st; Temple’s was 60th.

The schedules of Texas (15), Indiana (26) and UCLA (28) were all ranked higher.

“I would think an eye test is also a plus of putting them into the field,” Scott Barnes, the head of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, told CBS of why UCLA was picked ahead of others for the tournament.

“The win by Wyoming in the [Mountain West tournament] was a challenge and kept Temple out.”

UConn, last season’s champ, didn’t make the field either. The Huskies fell short after Sunday’s American Athletic Conference title game loss to SMU.

By conference, the Big 12 and Big Ten led the way with seven selections each.

The ACC and Big East each had six teams make it; the SEC had five; the Pac-12 had four; the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West had three; the American Athletic, Missouri Valley and West Coast each had two.

“I thought Indiana was on the bubble, but I’m fine with [them getting in],” Kellogg said. “The Big Ten was the best conference from top to bottom in terms of quality.”

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