The Kentucky Wildcats were anointed the Number One college basketball team in the 2014-15 season the moment they stepped off the court in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas as 60-54 losers to Connecticut in the national championship game. Nothing has changed since. There were several unexpected extensions into overtime in early Southeastern Conference play however the undefeated Wildcats’ performance so far has pundits debating not whether they are the very best basketball team in the united kingdom this season but of all time. As usual John Calipari’s squad is stuffed with blue-chip McDonald’s All-Americans, only among whom can be an upperclassman. He often substitutes them into the overall game en masse, hockey style.
But those who only see the gaudy undefeated record might not be aware that this Kentucky team is created on defense. The Wildcats quit only 81.7 points per 100 possessions, the stingiest defense the college game has ever seen since that metric was introduced in the first 2000s – with a whopping 3.4 points. So even though Kentucky’s shots aren’t falling on a particular evening the opposition still needs to contend with that historically stifling defense to defeat the’Cats.
For much of the 2014 March Madness the Wisconsin Badgers were the very best team in the tournament, until they lost by a point to Kentucky in the National Semifinals. Frank Kaminsky has kept his Badgers one of the nation’s elite, doing this in familiar fashion. Wisconsin’s grinding style limits teams to 56 points a game. They’re the class of the competitive Big Ten and while a plodding type of play might not win fans it certainly wins game.
You don’t have to state that twice to Tony Bennett whose Virginia Cavaliers play to the second-slowest tempo in the nation. Ask Georgia Tech who walked off a floor of John Paul Jones Arena with 28 points in a January loss. The Cavaliers caused it to be to 19-0 before stumbling at home to conference rival Duke. Both Virginia and Duke, led by the sublime Jahlil Okafor, are possibilities for Number One seeds at next month’s big dance. Even while undefeated no body was comparing Virginia to Kentucky and for justification – when Bennett looks down his bench he doesn’t see just one McDonald’s All-American, a rarity for an elite team.
The Kansas Jayhawks arrived to the 2014-15 season with high expectations which lasted precisely 41 minutes. After a beginning tune-up in a win against the University of California at Santa Barbara the #5 Jayhawks were dismantled in a neutral site game by Kentucky 72-40. That loss dropped the Hawks down seriously to the mid-teens in the national rankings but Kansas has clawed its way back, thanks in large part to an exceptional 8-1 record in the Big 12, the toughest conference in the united kingdom top to bottom. Top-heavy conferences such as the ACC with Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville and North Carolina have no shortage of Final Four dreamers but there is a good opportunity for ten of the Big 12 teams to get invitations to the tournament.
Arizona has been the class of the PAC-12 for such a long time it is simple to forget that UCLA once ruled the college basketball universe. NBA players rotate through coach Sean Miller’s program with such regularity that the tired trope of “reloading, not rebuilding” is entirely appropriate in Tucson. Arizona has been the victim of mystifying defeats in past seasons but they are once again capable to win a national championship. As always “defense” is the watchword for Miller-coached teams which results in such beat-downs because the 57-34 hurting the Wildcats put on a 14-6 Oregon State squad at the end of January. It really may turn out that the 2014-15 season will end with a set of Wildcat teams vying to see just who is indeed the more ferocious.