Can Kentucky Go Undefeated?
The 2014-2015 Wildcats have been built on three things: size, depth and defense, which has translated to a flaming hot 23-0 start, that has included a 32-point walloping of Kansas, along with victories over Texas, Louisville and UNC. That size has been key to the Wildcats' suffocating defense, which could be the best in the entire nation. Led by a frontline that includes seven-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Towns (both shot-blocking machines), along with bullying big man Dakari Johnson, plus a perimeter defense that is stifling with Tyler Ulis and Dominique Hawkins, the 'Cats have allowed over 70 points just once on the year, in their SEC opener to Ole Miss that went into double overtime. Their depth is also crazy impressive, even without junior forward Alex Poythress (out for the remainder of the season), something that comes naturally when you have nine McDonald's All-Americans on your roster. One thing is clear in Lexington, that has been clear all year long and really, throughout Coach Cal's tenure; they are crazy talented. When the Harrison twins are playing smart and aggressive, when Towns is physical, when Devin Booker is shooting well and when Johnson utilizes his wide frame in the low post, there isn't a team in the entire nation that matches up with them.
Yet, this is not a team of robots that comes out every single night on their "A" game. They are still young, even with the unusual presence of upperclassmen under Calipari, and they will be prone to mistakes. Too often Kentucky's offense gets stuck in the half-court and doesn't know what to do when they aren't out in transition. The Wildcats turn the ball over way too often, something that is clearly very typical for young teams, and other than Booker, they don't really have a proven shooter. The Harrisons have their moments but lack general consistency from deep, and Ulis is not much of a scorer, let alone a shooter. Though for those deficiencies, this team always seems to have answers. In crunch time against Ole Miss, Texas A&M and just this past night against Florida on the road, a young team answered the bell. They control the ball much better in the second half, and always seem to get the job done at the free throw line. Few teams in the history of the sport can be so young but yet so strong in crunch time, an obvious reason why the Wildcats are 23-0 and even if they don't finish the year undefeated, they will clearly be a major threat in the tourney.
The Wildcats' season is far from over, and now is the crunch time when too many strong teams fall apart. Mid-February to early March is hazardous for many top teams, especially ones with an undefeated record. Conference play is in full bloom, and night after night you have to perform your best. Many teams get caught looking ahead to the tourney, something Kentucky can not afford to do. Sure, the SEC is not the deep, talented basketball conference as it is in football, but it is full of scary, dark horse teams that can come out any night and take down the Wildcats. Most notably of the teams remaining on Kentucky's roster; a trip this Tuesday to a hostile environment in Baton Rouge to take on sophomore Jordan Mickey and LSU, the upset-minded South Carolina Gamecocks just days later, and a three-game stretch to end the regular season that includes Arkansas, Georgia and Florida. Even if Kentucky does get through that the SEC Tournament awaits just days later, and after that an NCAA Tournament, where of course, anything can happen. Clearly there is a reason why no team has gone undefeated since Indiana back in '75-'76. Conference play is grueling and the Tournament is a six-game crazy couple weeks (Indiana did not play in the modern era of 68 teams, the 64-team was set a decade later in 1985).
The odds are stacked against Kentucky, there shouldn't be much denying. Sure, they have a crazy-talented stockpile of playmakers and anybody on their team can get scorching hot when the team needs it. But, the Wildcats have a tough schedule remaining, no matter what you think about the SEC. Anybody in the conference can come out at any time and strike, and the conference tournament could also expose them. And, then there is the NCAA Tournament, that includes 67 of the other best teams in NCAA Basketball. Though, don't write any chances of Kentucky finishing up flawless completely off. They have the depth (especially when Trey Lyles, who has missed the last three games returns) the defense, and the weapons to get the job done. While the 'Cats may need some magic along the way, Indiana's long hold on the last true unbeaten of college basketball may come to an end after three decades, though not likely, as there is just too much standing in the way between now and April when the NCAA champ is crowned.
Who Could Beat Them? (Remaining Tough Games)
@LSU Tigers (17-6) on February 10th: Quietly, Johnny Jones has built a program to be reckoned with in Baton Rouge. The Tigers sit at 17-6 and in great position to make a tournament bid (plus, five-star recruit Ben Simmons arrives next year) and have a ton of versatility in the frontcourt. Though, they need to hit some big threes, as they do not have the size Kentucky has up front.
Arkansas Razorbacks (18-5) on February 28th: Arkansas pulled off a memorable upset against the Wildcats a year ago, and may be in good position to do much the same this year, in their lone opportunity in the regular season to hunt the 'Cats. Forward Bobby Portis has been a stud this year and his floor-stretching ability will greatly challenge the Wildcats' defense.
Florida Gators (12-11) on March 7th: It has not been a fun year for Billy Donovan and the Gators. Without their four senior studs, the Gators have struggled, losing close game after close game to falter to a 12-11 mark. Though, they are still extremely talented, with Michael Frazier a deadly three-point shooter and the versatile Dorian Finney-Smith.