There are just two remaining undefeated programs 11 weeks into the NCAA men’s basketball regular season. One is a perennial powerhouse, carrying the most all-time wins of any collegiate program, two appearances in the last three national championship games, a coach who likely will be remembered as much for his recruiting prowess as for his on-court accomplishments, and the inconceivable weight of expectation that comes from decades of success. The other hasn’t made the Final Four in more than 30 years, ranked 30th in attendance a season ago, and is a university steeped in academia but not so much in basketball lore; no one is using the school as a launching pad for the pros.
These teams — the Kentucky Wildcats and Virginia Cavaliers — are the current favorites to hoist the trophy in Lucas Oil Stadium in April. You could make an argument for both as the best team in college basketball, but as it stands currently, Kentucky is better suited for a tournament run.
The last two national championship games were decided by defense. In 2014, it didn’t matter that Kentucky had a top 50 offense and averaged 76.4 points per contest; Connecticut’s 10th-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating held them to 54 points in the title game. In 2013, it didn’t matter that Michigan had the No. 1 offense in the country because Louisville had the far superior defensive scheme.
What’s remarkable this season is how great both Virginia and Kentucky have been at locking down opponents. U-Va. Coach Tony Bennett, in his sixth year, has had just five games decided by 10 points or less. His Cavaliers suffocated Harvard to 27 total points in December, buttressed by allowing an NCAA record-tying one made field goal in the first half. One shot. On the strength of Bennett’s “pack-line defense,” which was developed by his father, Dick Bennett, the Cavaliers have the third-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating this season.
Kentucky has also had just five games decided by 10 points or less — but three since Jan. 1, including back-to-back overtime games to start conference play. However, Coach John Calipari’s defense in on pace to do something remarkable: hold opponents to 76.7 points per 100 possessions, which would be the first time in 15 seasons that a defense accomplished it. Despite the recent close calls, Kentucky is outscoring their opponents by 39.1 points per 100 possessions — the best rate in the country. On the backs of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wildcats block a nation-leading 8.11 shots per game, and hold opponents to just 30.5 percent shooting in the half court.
Kentucky once labeled vulnerable, lethargic and lost at times, is deeper than it has been in years and is also loaded with length and athleticism. Plus, the Wildcats are facilitating at the highest rate since 2002. They can afford, for now, to shoot 45 percent from the floor because they snatch 41 rebounds per game.
Offensively, Kentucky holds some clear advantages on Virginia, though it’s certainly played an easier schedule.
The tournament has always been, at least in the years since John Wooden’s UCLA teams bludgeoned the rest of the country into nothingness, about teams generating momentum at the right time. Clearly both Kentucky and Virginia could, and are projected to make a run in March, but as of now, the Wildcats have more potent offense and a defense predicted to do something that hasn’t been done in a decade and a half.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vice, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He’s currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him know on Twitter (@JPlanos).