March Madness 2015: Five Teams That Can Beat Kentucky
As of this typing, we are getting close to the 24 hour countdown to the beginning of the NCAA basketball tournament (the real beginning, not the phony baloney First Four they plunk down in Dayton for two days every year), so it's about to fill out your brackets.
The tournament always has at least a few teams who are head and shoulders above the field, but this is one of those rare years where the three weeks are being treated as more of a coronation than a competition.
Pretty much everyone with a pen, a bracket, and a pulse expects John Calipari's Kentucky team to cut down the nets in a few weeks in Indianapolis. How prohibitive a favorite are they? Well, the latest odds on winning the whole thing look like this:
Kentucky +110 Arizona +550 Wisconsin +600 Villanova +650 Duke +700 Virginia +900 Gonzaga +1500 Iowa State +1700 Utah +2500 Wichita State +2500 Kansas +3000 Notre Dame +3500 Oklahoma +3500 North Carolina +3500 Northern Iowa +3500 Michigan State +3500
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So basically, it's a coin flipper. If you were betting a friend, a logical 50/50 bet (or close to 50/50) would be one of you having Kentucky and the other person having the remainder of the field. Notice how far down the list of teams you have to go to before you get to the odds for another team in Kentucky's region -- Wichita State +2500, Kansas +3000, Notre Dame +3500.
So when it comes time to fill out your bracket, if you're trying to win the office pool, you can try to have the best sheet of the massive percentage of people taking Kentucky to win the whole thing, OR you can try to pick a team aside from Kentucky who can win this whole thing.
Me? I'd rather trust my ability to find Kentucky's kryptonite than try to be the one who gets the most first and second round games picked correctly. That's the type of thing that generally involves beating secretaries and girlfriends who pick their brackets based on team colors or mascots.
So my plan is to pick a winner from the pool of teams I think have a formula that could lead to success against the Wildcats, who are certainly not invincible. After all, there were points during the season where it looked like they could get knocked off (A&M, Ole Miss, Georgia a couple weeks ago). So my champion will come from one of the following:
WISCONSIN (1 seed, West, Final Four) Experienced team that will likely have a chip on its shoulder if they meet Kentucky in the Final Four, after losing to the Wildcats last season in the national semifinal. With a front line of 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, 6-9 Sam Dekker and 6-8 Nigel Hayes, the Badgers have the size to give Kentucky a fight. Vegas agrees, as sports books have forecasted Wisconsin to have the smallest spread against Kentucky on a neutral court (5.5 points).
ARIZONA (2 seed, West, Final Four) They might be the hottest team heading into the tournament, having won 11 in a row and most of them of the plundering variety. Sean Miller's squad has a capable 7-footer in Caleb Tarczewski, an athletic freshman wing in Stanley Johnson, and a solid, veteran point guard to protect the basketball in T.J. McConnell. Arizona is also the best team in the nation on the defensive glass, so they won't be giving many extra possessions to a team that will destroy you when they get extra possessions.
DUKE (1 seed, South, Championship Game) Perhaps the closest team in the field to Kentucky when it comes to NBA talent, albeit young NBA talent. Freshman center Jahlil Okafor might end up being the number one pick in the draft, freshman wing Justise Winslow may be their best all around player, and freshman guard Tyus Jones is the engine that makes it all go. Depth would be an issue if there's any foul trouble, but if Duke's rotation can stay intact, they could knock off the Wildcats. This is the matchup in the finals that television is praying for.
GONZAGA (2 seed, South, Championship Game) The Zags have the size to hang in with Kentucky, with seven footer Przemek Karnowski and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer. Point guard Kevin Pangos is a sniper from long range, but Gonzaga will have to protect the basketball better than they generally do in the regular season during conference play, although admittedly that may have to do with focus issues against lesser competition than a pervasive inability to protect the basketball.
NOTRE DAME (3 seed, Midwest, Regional Final) If there is one team in its region that could prevent the Wildcats from cutting down the regional nets, it's the Irish, who are fresh off an historic run through the ACC tournament where they beat Duke and UNC in back to back nights in Greensboro, NC. Mike Brey's team protects the basketball as well as anyone in the nation, they're a veteran team, and they're loaded with shooters like Pat Connaughton, Steve Vasturia, and Player of the Year candidate Jerian Grant. If ND is going to pull off the upset, they'll need to be on point from distance as they only have one really capable big in Zach Auguste.
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