The 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship began on Tuesday night and got into full swing on Thursday. The question on everyone’s mind is, can anyone stop Kentucky?
Kentucky rolled through the SEC Tournament with frightening ease. They are 34-0 and the #1-overall seed. But there are challengers to the Wildcats. Whether or not they are true contenders remains to be seen. Everyone is caught up in the excitement of the prospect of a men’s team running the table in this day and age of basketball—the magical 40-0 record, and why not?
Kentucky has had the most impressive regular season of anyone since UNLV in 1991, the last team that entered a Final Four undefeated. Vegas seemed untouchable also, and they had won the title the year before (not lost the title game like Kentucky), but they were beaten. So can Kentucky, but it will take something very special.
That Duke team which upset UNLV in the 1991 Final Four went on to win back-to-back championships. They were very special. The team that can challenge Kentucky must bring something unique to the court. If a team were to beat them, they would have a better chance to speed them up than to slow them down. I know Kentucky has won in every style of game, but oft-mentioned challengers like Virginia, or Northern Iowa who graced the SI cover, cannot overpower UK in a half-court battle. Wisconsin also fits into that group.
If a team is to pull off the upset, it will have to be one athletic enough to get out in transition and skilled enough to finish. It also has to be a team with superior toughness not just physically, but mentally as well. It is wave after wave with Kentucky; you cannot bow to any of them. As I see it, there are only two teams who fit this mold (with all apologies to Gonzaga with the first two qualities, athleticism and skill). Those are Duke and Iowa State.
I have an inkling the committee may have thought of those two. They are each placed on the opposite side of the bracket and in the same region. Duke is the #1-seed, and Iowa State the #3 in the South. Gonzaga is #2. Duke is obvious, 29-4, a bit of a controversial #1-seed though. They did not win the regular season or the tournament in the ACC, absolutely laying an egg against Notre Dame in the Semifinal.
Duke likes to get out in the open floor and have a big push that can run with Kentucky’s in Jahlil Okafor. Justise Winslow provides versatility, and Quinn Cook the senior leadership. An X-factor could be emerging with freshman Grayson Allen who can really shoot.
Iowa State won their second consecutive Big XII championship with a 70-66 win over Kansas in the championship game. The same thing that leads to hope for the Cyclones is the same thing that brings worry. In each of the last five games, ISU has trailed by at least 15 points, and they have won them all. That fortitude will serve them very well, but more awful first halves will get them buried too deeply against a Kentucky team.
The Cyclones are led by Georges Niang, the cool head of Monte Morris at the point, and the athleticism of Jameel McKay inside. Their X-factor is Bryce DeJean-Jones. Once a starter who has fallen a bit out of favor, he possesses skills that can bother Kentucky if his heart is fully into it.