NEW ORLEANS — When the incessant bracket banter over potential Final Four sleepers and first-round flops finally subsides, the outcome of the upcoming NCAA tournament will boil down to a single question: Can anyone beat top-ranked Kentucky?
Other highly regarded teams can take heed of the fact that the Wildcats, who likely will earn the tournament’s top overall seed when the 68-team bracket is unveiled Sunday night, have encountered significant turbulence in their two Southeastern Conference tournament games after authoring a near-perfect regular season.
While neither Louisiana State nor Florida beat Kentucky (32-1), both teams provided a blueprint for how to successfully challenge the Wildcats, whose lone loss came when Indiana sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer on Dec. 10. If nothing else, the SEC tournament adversity has underscored what LSU guard Chris Bass said Friday: “They are not invincible at all.”
Of course, things could be worse for the Wildcats, who set a program record for regular season wins. But for all of their strengths — physical length, shot-blocking ability and sheer talent chief among them — the Wildcats are susceptible to lackadaisical play, early fatigue, cold outside shooting spells and turnover-plagued lapses on offense.
“These kids are not machines,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said.
Florida had lost by a combined 35 points in two regular season games against Kentucky. But the Gators built a 10-point first-half lead in Saturday’s SEC semifinal yet could not pull back ahead in the game’s final minutes, losing 74-71. Afterward, Florida Coach Billy Donovan said there are two ways to potentially beat Kentucky.
“You have to do what LSU did and just be extremely physical at the basket, and body” all cutting Kentucky players, Donovan said. “Or you need to play really, really fast. Really fast and force Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis and those guys to constantly have to run during the course of the games, on misses and makes.”
When venerable broadcaster Marv Albert looks at Kentucky, he said he sees one thing: six future NBA players. But beyond those six standouts, the Wildcats hardly have any other players of consequence. The Gators played fast to fatigue the Wildcats, whose reserves account for just 22.4 percent of Kentucky’s team minutes this season, which ranks 317th nationally.
The Gators tried to push the ball at every opportunity, forward Patric Young said, because they knew Kentucky players would tire because “they have been playing way too many minutes all year” and are not in the “best of shape.” During the game, Young said, Davis himself told him that he was gassed.
“It wore Davis out a lot — he is not the most physical guy out there,” Young said of Kentucky’s star freshman. “Him just jogging down the court, lackadaisical, and I am being aggressive and ready to score.”
Davis, the nation’s leading shot-blocker and a candidate for national player of the year, said he was more fatigued than usual Saturday, but he attributed exhaustion largely to playing 33 minutes in Friday’s game against LSU.
The Tigers flustered the Wildcats with physical play on both ends of the court Friday before Kentucky pulled away for a 60-51 victory. Despite committing an average of just 11.4 turnovers per game, Kentucky had 18 giveaways against the Tigers, who were the aggressors from the outset.
When the game turned physical, Calipari said, his players were bumped and failed to hold on to the ball.
“It just got too physical for guys,” he said. “I had a couple guys I could not leave in the game.”
The game revealed another potential issue. The Tigers played off of point guard Marquis Teague, giving the freshman open outside looks at the basket. But Teague, who shoots 33 percent from three-point range, did not attempt a three-pointer and missed all five of his field goal attempts.
After the game, Calipari took Teague aside and said: “I’ve got all the faith in the world in you. You keep them honest shooting jumpers. If they don’t play you, let it go. If you don’t want to play that way, cut to the rim.”
With three freshman starters, the Wildcats are one of the nation’s youngest teams. Calipari said his players did not understand that every opponent in postseason play will compete so hard “out of desperation.”
Calipari is no fan of conference tournaments in part because of the challenges of playing on three or four consecutive days. But with an eye on the more significant tournament that begins this week, he has reinforced what is at stake and how abruptly it could end.
“Sometimes they think, ‘Well, eight months ago, I was playing in Vegas and if we lost we had another game at 6,’ ” Calipari said. “Well, this isn’t the AAU, this is real.”
Earlier this week, Scotty Thurman, who starred on Arkansas’ 1994 national title team, said that Kentucky had a chance to be regarded as one of the great teams in history. But there is no guarantee the Wildcats will return to New Orleans in three weeks to play for the national championship.
As Florida’s Young said: “They are definitely beatable. We almost did it.”