Who can beat Kentucky?
Amid all the debates that began Sunday when the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced, the overriding question is: Can any team prevent perfection?
Undisputed No.1 Kentucky, 34-0 after beating Arkansas for the SEC tournament title, needs a 6-0 run through the Final Four in Indianapolis to become the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.
Everyone is an underdog to the Wildcats and their bottomless roster.
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Maybe Maryland, led by Melo Trimble and Dez Wells, could trip Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Maybe Notre Dame’s multi-pronged scoring machine could upend Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Maybe Kansas could prove to be Kentucky’s nemesis in the Midwest Region. Maybe Frank Kaminsky’s Wisconsin Badgers could slow down the basketball version of the Kentucky Derby. Maybe peaking Arizona or gutsy Gonzaga?
But this is March Madness. The reason that 40 million Americans will bet $9 million — twice what was wagered on the Super Bowl — on 70 million brackets is their unbreakable faith in the unpredictability of the tournament.
Despite Kentucky’s dominance, there’s always room on the dance floor for Cinderella.
Perhaps foretelling what might happen over the next three weeks, surprises started with the Selection Sunday bracket filled in by the NCAA selection committee. UCLA, which had no impressive road wins, somehow snuck in because of the perception that the Bruins were “gaining steam,” said chairman Scott Barnes.
Boise State, Texas, Indiana and Mississippi also slid over the bubble while the University of Miami, Temple and Colorado State were left on the outside looking in. Barnes said strength of schedule was a key factor, but arguments could be made regarding discrepancies in power ratings. Those arguments become academic in about the same amount of time it took Albany to sink a last-second game winner and make the field.
It was a bad season for the Sunshine State’s major teams as Florida was a head-case disappointment, Florida State was rebuilding and Miami was inconsistent. Only North Florida, located in Jacksonville, will represent the peninsula, playing Robert Morris in a play-in game on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, for the privilege of meeting Duke on Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Need a team to follow?
How about Northern Iowa, which was 16-15 last year but has transformed itself in concert with center Seth Tuttle, who went from good to All-American.
Or Eastern Washington, led by lefty guard Tyler Harvey, the nation’s leading scorer. The referee’s son didn’t have a scholarship offer out of high school.
Or Davidson, the Atlantic 10 champ that was picked to finish 12th in the conference, with Tyler Kalinoski bringing back memories of Steph Curry.
Or Baylor and its maddening zone defense.
Or Southern Methodist, the third team coach Larry Brown will take to the tournament, 27 years after he took Kansas to the title.
Some team will break up the Final Four party of No.1 seeds Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin and Villanova. Only once, in 2008, did all four No.1 seeds advance to the Final Four.
Among the elites, Villanova has the roughest road in an East region loaded with a Virginia team that deserved a No.1 seed, dangerous No.7 seed Michigan State, plus Louisville and Oklahoma.
The tournament will only get more interesting when it gets down to the Elite Eight. That’s when the picks are particularly confounding. Wisconsin and probable Player of the Year Kaminsky, or Arizona, led by Brandon Ashley and Stanley Johnson? Virginia’s healing Justin Anderson (broken finger) can help his teammates beat Nova. Gonzaga — big, well-rounded and the nation’s most accurate shooting team — ought to be able to eliminate Duke and probable No.1 NBA draft pick Jahlil Okafor.
But then who has the game to beat Kentucky? The Wildcats are tall and deep and fast and unselfish: Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Dakari Johnson, Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles.
They’re so focused on the championship they lost to Connecticut last year that they forgot to cut down the nets after winning the SEC tourney on Sunday.
“We were walking off and somebody said we forgot to cut down the nets,” said Calipari, who has been a genius at meshing the talents of nine McDonald’s All-Americans.
It will take more than three-pointers to beat Kentucky. It will take defensive rebounding, control of the tempo and mistake-proof play.
“Everybody is 0-0 now,” Calipari said, trying to tamp down expectations. “Everybody is saying Kentucky can’t lose. But this is a one-game shot now. I’m telling my players: Be the best version of yourself.”
If they are, they will be perfect.