>> Other 1 seeds: East: Villanova | West: Wisconsin | South: Duke
Coach: John Calipari | NCAA tournament record: 43-14
Best finish: National championship (2012) | Last year’s finish: National runner-up to UConn
Assistants: John Robic, Barry ‘Slice’ Rohrssen, Kenny Payne
Starting lineup: G: Andrew Harrison G: Aaron Harrison F: Trey Lyles F: Karl-Anthony Towns F: Willie Cauley-Stein
Top reserve: Devin Booker
Leading scorer: Aaron Harrison (11.3) | Leading rebounder: Karl-Anthony Towns (6.7)
National championships: 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012 | Last Final Four: 2014
Why Kentucky might win it all: This is undeniably the nation’s best outfit thanks to a roster that mostly overwhelms opponents, and is evidenced by its selection as the No. 1 overall seed, as well as the Midwest’s top dog. They’re big and athletic and college basketball’s only team that currently ranks in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. The loss of Alex Poythress to a knee injury removed one McDonald’s All-American, and that wasn’t ideal. But the Wildcats still have eight top-shelf talents, all good enough to start. And that’s been the key to their undefeated season — how it doesn’t matter much when one or two starters struggle because there’s always another elite talent capable of filling in.
Why Kentucky might not win it all: The Wildcats are unbeaten but not unbeatable. Ole Miss took them to overtime. Texas A&M took them to double-overtime. They were down late at LSU and Florida. In other words, Kentucky is clearly great but vulnerable — especially in a single-elimination tournament of 40-minute games. This isn’t the NBA playoffs, you know, where you have to beat somebody four times to eliminate them. Somebody only has to beat Kentucky for 40 minutes to prevent the Wildcats from winning a ninth national championship, and there are a handful of teams — Arizona, Wisconsin, Villanova, Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke, etc., — capable of getting hot and doing that.
Player to watch: Willie Cauley-Stein averages 9.3 points and 6.4 rebounds, but those numbers don’t come close to capturing the 7-foot junior’s impact. He regularly alters and blocks shots, is wonderful at hedging on ball screens and is generally regarded as the best defensive player in college basketball.
One guy soaring: Cauley-Stein isn’t known for his offense (and will likely never be known for his offense), but he’s been terrific on that end of the court in UK’s past two games. He was 7 of 9 from the field in Saturday’s win over Auburn, then 5 of 6 from the field in Sunday’s win over Arkansas. He averaged 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in those two games.
Notable stat:UK’s 34-0 record features 27 double-digit wins. They’ve played six games against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 (and one). They won those games by an average of 19.3 points.
Final thought: Kentucky is the biggest favorite the NCAA tournament has seen in more than two decades, and Vegas has actually made the Wildcats a favorite over the combined rest of the field. I’ve had them ranked No. 1 literally since last April based on the talent John Calipari returned and enrolled, and Kentucky has more than exceeded reasonable expectations already. Will the Wildcats win it all? Yes, I think so. It won’t be as simple as some seem to believe, and they’ll find themselves in trouble somewhere along the way. But, barring a surprise, Kentucky will finish as the first 40-0 team in Division I men’s basketball history.